There are so many interesting things to explore about the past, so much exciting and fascinating history, that the so-called “mysteries” of the ancient astronaut theorists and alternative historians pale in comparison. And yet, what is that we see on television, find on bookstore shelves, and stumble across on nearly every website? Aliens, Atlantis, Chupacabra, “new” chronologies, Phoenician world travelers, prehistoric nuclear bombs, etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
It’s tiresome, really. The false mysteries of fake history haven’t changed more than an iota in more than 150 years. Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882) set the stage for “alternative” history (though it was not the first of its genre, only the most popular), and his work is a veritable buffet of scholarship compared to the imperfect carbon copies that followed during the twentieth century. All of the basic arguments later used by Erich von Däniken in the 1970s, David Hatcher Childress in the 1980s, Graham Hancock in the 1990s, and Ancient Aliens: The Series today can be found in Donnelly’s book. Most of the later versions are unchanged from their first presentation: that pyramids on both sides of the world are evidence of a common source; that the use of heavy blocks implies a centralized prehistoric civilization of superior organization and power; that similarities in myth speak to a common origin in real life history.
At this point in the run of Ancient Aliens, more than halfway through its third season, it has become clear that the producers never expected the series to last this long. Where the early episodes of the series moved quickly and covered the “classic” ancient “mysteries” of the ancient astronaut theory, more recent episodes have slowed the pace considerably and spend increasing time talking to people other than ancient astronaut theorists. This seems to be a confession on the part of Prometheus Entertainment (who, as of this writing, has still refused to speak with me about the show) that they are running out of material.
How else to explain last night’s embarrassing hour of television, “Aliens and Evil Places,” which even by the low standards of cable mystery-mongering failed the first function of television: to entertain. Since the production was so lazy, I find it difficult to muster up the energy to watch it again to pull out quotations. I think I’ll just wing it. Heaven knows they were.
In the annals of “alternative history,” there have been any number of strange theories invented out of little more than wishful thinking. Today, I thought I’d present one of the stranger sidelights in the world of alternative thinking, one that dates all the way back to 1774, with significant recurrences in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This theory held that Noah’s Ark, the Greek mythological ship Argo, and the box (or ark) in which Osiris was drowned were all one and the same—and all derived from the Biblical original. The entirety of the argument rests on the impossible idea that since the word “Argo” sounds like the word “Ark” they must be connected. In reality, “Argo” derives from a Greek word for “swift,” of completely separate Indo-European origin from Ark, which comes from the Latin word arca, or box. (Needless to say, the Hebrew bible does not use Latin terms--the original Hebrew name for the Ark, tebhath, is completely unrelated.)
This theory was presented by Jacob Bryant in his New System; Or, an Analysis of Ancient Mythology (1774-1776), one of many early works attempting to “prove” that all pagan mythology is merely a corruption of the Hebrew Bible. The following excerpt explains his “theory” about the Argo and the Ark. I have substituted an English translation for a line of Greek in the original for ease of reading.
David Hatcher Childress popularized a fraudulent ancient pre-dynastic Egyptian society called the “Osirian Empire” that he frequently describes as existing in the Mediterranean basin before it filled up with water. In his Lost Civilizations of Atlantis (1996), he wrote that “The Osirian Civilization, according to esoteric tradition, was an advanced civilization contemporary with Atlantis” (p. 27). However, across thirty years of references to this culture, Childress never once explains his source for the “Osirian Empire” or “Osirian Civilization” other than “esoteric tradition.” I’ll be damned if I know what “esoteric tradition” he’s talking about, as I can find no trace of this supposed tradition anywhere but in his imagination.
The closest I can find is a nineteenth century volume by William Brown Galloway, a nineteenth century scholar whose specialty appears to have been trying to use science to prove the reality of the Bible (or maybe it was the other way around). Galloway wrote such books as The North Pole, the Great Ice Age, and the Deluge, which sought to reconcile the existence of the Ice Age with the book of Genesis. In his Egypt’s Record of Time to the Exodus of Israel, Critically Investigated (1869), Galloway seems to have attempted to link Assyria to Egypt by way of the god Osiris, whom he identified with the Biblical Nimrod, himself the subject of enormous speculation about lost civilizations in the nineteenth century.
According to Galloway, the islands of the Mediterranean were attached to Egypt as part of the “Athyrian or Aÿrian Empire” (p. 295). He also made this Aÿrian Empire the equivalent of the Aërian land found in Aeschylus, and that all of these words were “equivalent to Athyrian or Osirian” (p. 147). Then, on page 165 and again on 552, he explicitly equates Osirian and Assyrian; finally, we note than on 434 he states that the “Osirian empire,” now envisioned as pre-dynastic Egypt, can be understood from descriptions in the Book of Job, which he believed was written before the Exodus and thus described the oldest civilizations extant after the Flood. The whole mess seems to come from the coincidence that Osiris’ Egyptian name, Asar (Osiris is a Greek form of the name), sounds like the name Assyria. Linguistic coincidences were considered very important by speculative authors both then and today.
All of this ridiculous speculation seems to flow from a few sources from a few decades earlier. Algernon Herbert’s Nimrod: A Discourse on Certain Passages in History and Fable (1826-1830) was a monumental, four-volume work based on false premises. It aimed at proving biblical literalism and the truth of prophecy based on literal interpretations of ancient texts. More famously, Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons (1828; rev. ed. 1858; full book 1919) provided a conspiracy theory arguing that Catholicism was a veiled continuation of Babylonian worship of Nimrod, whom Hislop (1858) identified with Osiris (p. 454), thus suggesting a unity of the Babylonian and Egyptian empires in the pre-dynastic period, a unity that continues in the universal worship of a dying-and-rising god figure whose origins date back to early paganism.
I suppose this is an “esoteric tradition,” but mostly among biblical literalists and conspiracy theorists who repeat one another’s work, no matter how disconnected it is to the actual past. As for the sunken continents, advanced technology, and other weird claims Childress makes about the Osirian Empire—I have no idea. I guess the “tradition” is too “esoteric” even for me.
As I’ve discussed a few times now, one of the most maddening things about alternative historians and ancient astronaut theorists is the way they insist on literal interpretations of ancient texts. For example, Ezekiel’s vision is seen as a firsthand report of a UFO, Phaeton’s fiery crash of the sun chariot is seen as an eyewitness account of a crashed flying saucer, and of course Plato’s Atlantis is taken for historical fact. Today I’d like to share an example of how this rejection of textual criticism, which is superficially an appealing way to make new discoveries, actively destroys knowledge when applied in practice.
Our example comes from a strange incident in the adventures of Jason, the Greek hero who captured the Golden Fleece after making a great journey to the East. In later Greco-Roman religious practice, this hero somehow acquired a series of temples across the East as well as a mountain in Iran, Mt. Jasonium (Strabo, Geography, 11.13-14). He was also recognized as the conqueror of Armenia before the Trojan War (Strabo, Geography, 11.14; Justin, Epitome, 42.2-3). Taken at face value, as alternative historians prefer, such tales imply either that Jason was seen as a god (or, heaven help us, an alien) or that the Greeks had conquered much of the Near East long before Alexander.
But taking the texts at face value actively destroys knowledge. The real story is so much more interesting.
Sometimes I wonder what happened to the promise of cable television. Once upon a time, opponents of PBS argued that public broadcasting was no longer needed because cable TV offered the same type of educational, informative programming under private auspices. But today the Discovery Channel runs documentaries on “real” exorcisms, the Biography Channel devotes its time to “true” ghost stories, and even the National Geographic Channel tells its viewers that Atlantis has been found, perfectly preserved, in Spain. Worst of all is, of course, History (formerly the History Channel), with its stable of “documentaries” on the coming apocalypse, UFO sightings, and, worst of all, Ancient Aliens. If this represents the privatization of education, America is doomed.
Fifteen years ago, when cable networks were still developing their own programming, there was a brief moment when it seemed that they might provide a home for fact-based programming. Discovery, for example, was so successful with its science-based programming that it acquire or launched several subsidiary channels for ancillary documentaries, including The Learning Channel (now the TLC of Toddlers and Tiaras and Hoarding: Buried Alive fame) and Animal Planet (now known for Haunted and Confessions: Animal Hoarding). The Arts & Entertainment Network (now the A&E of Dog the Bounty Hunter and Hoarders--notice a pattern?) developed such a strong lineup of documentaries that it spun off the History Channel to offer still more.
One of the problems skeptics face in countering the insidious nonsense of the ancient astronaut theory is that skeptics treat the suggestion as though it were subject to the rules of science, and therefore they criticize it using physical evidence—radiocarbon dates, archaeological site reports, the laws of physics, etc. This approach is understandable since most skeptics tend to come from math and natural science backgrounds. But it isn’t effective outside the field of science.
As anyone who has perused the pages of Skeptical Inquirer or Skeptic has undoubtedly noticed, most articles in those publications would not be out of place in Popular Mechanics or a medical journal. I love science as much as the next skeptic, but I feel that skepticism needs to be broader than science—it needs to embrace the humanities as well, and to speak to people in a language they can understand rather than the rarified jargon of the academy.
The episode of Ancient Aliens that aired last night (September 22, 2011) was devoted to “Aliens and Deadly Weapons”; however, at this point in the show’s run—more than halfway through its third season—the deadliest weapon of all is the boring sameness of the program’s many episodes. Last night’s edition was no different, featuring a mixture of absurd claims unsupported by evidence, leading questions, and a few outright lies. The big news is that some of my critiques of David Hatcher Childress’s and Giorgio Tsoukalos’s “evidence” must have hit home as the program contorted itself to avoid directly citing a famous and fraudulent quotation about nuclear bombs in the Mahabharata. But more on that anon.
The first dumb claim this hour is the idea that world mythology contains many separate tales of fire being stolen from the gods because aliens gave humans fire. No, the myth of fire from the sky most likely comes from the obvious source of the first fire—lightning. You know: that fire in the sky.
The ancient astronaut theorists then argue that the ancient myths attributed to blacksmiths—myths forbidding the public to gaze upon them, myths making them suspect and magical—prove they were aliens. This is not true. Blacksmiths were considered powerful and magical, but also suspect and unclean, because they could transform lumps of ore into useful weapons and tools—a process that seemed magical. If this does not seem logical to you, remember: The ancients also considered menstruation to be a mythic, magical event that rendered the menstruating woman taboo and unclean. Unless you’d like to argue that the aliens invented menstruation, there is nothing alien to read into the myths of outcast blacksmiths.
One of the most important pieces of evidence alternative historians use to argue for the reality of Plato’s Atlantis is a report preserved in the fifth century BCE Greek historian Proclus’ commentary on Plato’s Timaeus that an earlier philosopher, Crantor (third century BCE), had confirmed Plato’s story by checking with the Egyptian priests for his commentary on the earlier philosopher’s works. The priests claimed to have preserved the inscriptions Solon saw when the Egyptians told him of Atlantis, as recorded in Plato. As we shall see, however, a careful reading of Proclus’ report shows that there is less to this “confirmation” than meets the eye.
According to Proclus, Crantor was the first to argue for the historicity of Atlantis. This is the beginning of what Proclus says about Crantor’s commentary on Plato:
“With respect to the whole of this narration about the Atlantics, some say, that it is a mere history, which was the opinion of Crantor, the first interpreter of Plato, who says, that Plato was derided by those of his time, as not being the inventor of the Republic, but transcribing what the Egyptians had written on this subject; and that he so far regards what is said by these deriders as to refer to the Egyptians this history about the Athenians and Atlantics, and to believe that the Athenians once lived conformably to this polity. Crantor adds, that this is testified by the prophets [i.e., priests] of the Egyptians, who assert that these particulars [which are narrated by Plato] are written on pillars which are still preserved.” (from Book 1, trans. Thomas Taylor, 1820)
Note, however, that Proclus does not say Crantor read these pillars, only that the Egyptian priests told him they exist. This is where most Atlantis believers leave off, with the alleged proof from the pillars of Egypt. But the text that immediately follows begins to make Crantor’s purpose clear. Bear with me. It’s long, and that is why it is rarely quoted:
The other day the New York Times published a profile of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, one of the leading voices arguing against religion in general and creationism in particular. Since Dawkins is one of the foremost proponents of evolution in the world, I was a bit taken aback by something he said at the end of the profile.
Dawkins told reporter Michael Powell that he is intrigued by physicist Freeman Dyson’s speculation that in the course of evolution human beings might evolve into super-powered, sentient energy. Powell asked whether these beings would be godlike. Dawkins replied:
“Certainly. It’s highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures. [But it’s] very important to understand that these Gods came into being by an explicable scientific progression of incremental evolution.”
Though I am sure Prof. Dawkins did not mean it this way, the implications of this (obviously unproven) speculation are startling. If there are godlike super-beings in the universe, how can we discount the possibility that these godlike beings did not stream down from the stars millions of years ago to light the fires of the primordial soup—that, essentially, they did not set the evolutionary train in motion? Would it be possible to prove, therefore, that creationism is untrue if there is the possibility that aliens we would interpret as gods actually exist and are, theoretically, so advanced that their handiwork would be invisible to us since they would use scientific methods to achieve creationist ends? These bolts of conscious energy may not have rocket ships, but ancient astronauts they would still be.
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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