In my continuing series on ancients vs. aliens, today I present yet another piece of ancient literature that directly contradicts the ancient astronaut theory. Today’s entry comes from a text believed to be the only piece of surviving Phoenician literature. Let us recall that alternative theorists have had a number of speculative ideas about the Phoenician gods. Immanuel Velikovsky thought the god Baal was the planet Venus buzzing by earth as a comet. David Icke was fairly certain Moloch (more properly Ba’al Hammon) was an alien. More generally, advocates of the ancient astronaut theory, including Erich von Däniken and Zecharia Sitchin simply declared that most, if not all, ancient Near Eastern gods were extraterrestrials.
Therefore, it is with interest that we read the work of Sanchuniathon, a quasi-historical figure alleged by the Greek writer Philo of Byblos to have been an ancient Phoenician historian living before the Trojan War. His literal existence is disputed, but the texts Philo drew upon in translating the Phoenician History were quite likely derived from genuine Phoenician texts or traditions, though almost certainly not as ancient as Philo assumed. Philo’s work, in turn, is preserved only in the later work of Eusebius of Caesaria, a Christian who quoted the pagans extensively in his works.
So, here is what Eusebius said Philo said Sanchuniathon said about the true nature of the gods:
But these were the first who consecrated the productions of the earth, and regarded them as gods, and worshipped them as being the support of life both to themselves, and to those who were to come after them, and to all before them, and they offered to them drink-offerings and libations. (Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, 1.10, trans. E. H. Gifford)
Sanchuniathon then claims that the Greeks are guilty of misunderstanding, interpreting ancient texts wrongly (!):
For it is not without cause that we have explained these things in many ways, but in view of the later misinterpretations of the names in the history, which the Greeks in ignorance took in a wrong sense, being deceived by the ambiguity of the translation. (Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, 1.10, trans. E. H. Gifford)
So, once again, we have the unambiguous statement of an ancient author that the gods were not aliens. In this case, the author (Philo or Sanchuniathon) believed the gods to be natural forces worshiped by the first conscious beings in their ignorance. The author even goes so far as to chastise the Greeks, and by extension the ancient astronaut theorists, for jumping to conclusions based on misunderstood ancient texts!
Of course, the Phoenician History shows evidence of Greek euhemerist rationalizing, but since the ancient astronaut theory’s whole premise is that ancient texts should be taken at face value to “reveal” true reports of alien intervention, ancient alien theorists need to eat what they are served. Yes, according to the "ancient texts," the gods are really fruits and vegetables, not aliens.
Today I’d like to present another of those lying ancient texts I’ve written about recently. Today’s lying ancient text ought to give fits to both Atlantis aficionados as well ancient astronaut theorists. First, I will present the text, and then I will offer a few comments on the ways this text confounds “alternative” theories.
Our selection today is a fragment of the fourth-century BCE atheist writer Euhemerus, as preserved in the work of the fourth-century CE scholar Eusebius, quoting Diodorus Siculus' summary of Euhemerus. (If you think this seems too indirect, remember: ancient astronaut theorists count anything within 4,000 years of an event as “direct evidence.”) In this rarely seen text, Euhemerus discusses a voyage into the Arabian Sea, where he visits the Atlantis-like island of the Panchaeans and reads the records of their kings, whom the Greeks ignorantly worship as gods. This translation comes from the 1876 edition of Cory’s Ancient Fragments (pp. 172-174).
Damn Those Lying Ancient Texts!
Last week, I discussed the elastic definition of “ancient texts” employed by the History Channel documentary series Ancient Aliens and the ancient astronaut theorists (AATs) who appear on the program, especially Giorgio Tsoukalos, the publisher of the ancient astronaut journal Legendary Times and a consulting producer on the series. Today I’d like to look at the use of a specific set of “ancient texts” in the ancient astronaut theory in order to show the way AATs somehow manage to undercut their own theory due to their misunderstanding or ignorance of the ancient texts they purport to cite.
Our example today comes from the Ancient Aliens episode that aired September 15, 2011, entitled “Aliens and Lost Worlds.” In the final third of the program, the documentary went in search of the alien origins of the Garden of Eden. In so doing, it drew on the now-common knowledge that the biblical narrative finds its origin in Mesopotamian mythology, which included an earthly paradise.
This past Thursday’s new episode of Ancient Aliens (Sept. 15) was remarkably subdued, with rather few completely outrageous claims. Instead, this episode focused more on silly interpretations of actual facts, relying on real archaeologists to present those facts before speculating those facts into oblivion. Fortunately, the final act provides another wonderful example of how ancient astronaut theorists contradict themselves. I’m going to discuss that example later as a separate post. First, let’s discuss the rest of the episode.
The program, devoted to “Aliens and Lost Worlds,” purported to explore ancient ruins around the world for their connection to alien gods, mostly by saying that Mayan carvings “look like” aliens in space suits or, in the vaguely colonialist words of ancient astronaut theorist David Hatcher Childress, art from some “oriental country” (well, which is it?) and then speculating that aliens flew serpent-shaped airplanes between China and Central America to—what exactly?—share sculpting tips? Aliens, of course, distributed art styles mostly at random, just to confuse archaeologists. Otherwise the “alien style” would be all too obvious!
In his 2011 book Tracking the Chupacabra, Benjamin Radford says that "no serious researcher" would claim that Aristotle, writing in 350 BCE, had the chupacabra in mind when he described the creature known as the goatsucker (chupacabra is Spanish for goat sucker). While Radford is right that Aristotle's goatsucker is not the same as the Puerto Rican vampire monster, Radford's dismissal shut the door on a fascinating story of how a Greco-Roman legend about the imaginary vampire tendencies of a small bird joined with Native American legends about this same bird's supposedly demonic nature to inform the developing story of the chupacabra. Click to read my new article on "The Secret Prehistory of El Chupacabra."
It seems that my frequent criticism that Giorgio Tsoukalos uses the phrase "ancient texts" as a catch-all term without actual texts to back up his wild ideas has made the ancient astronaut theorist a little defensive. On Wednesday, Tsoukalos actually tried to provide a citation (of sorts) for his wild claims about alien assistance in the construction of Egypt's Great Pyramid. He tweeted the following:
Repeat after me: The pyramids were NOT built by aliens. According to ancient Egyptian texts, the pyramids were built by humans WITH THE ASSISTANCE of the "Guardians of the Sky," or the "Teachers from Heaven," the "gods," who descended from the sky in "flying barges"... (If you're wondering what "texts" I'm referring to, check out the AL-KHITAT by Al-Maqrizi.) (source)
Now, this almost counts as a real citation of "ancient Egyptian texts," except for one thing. Al-Maqrizi (1364-1442 CE) was a medieval-era Muslim historian, and his Al-Khitat (more properly, the Mawaiz wa al-'i'tibar bi dhikr al-khitat wa al-'athar) was written around 1400 CE, almost FOUR THOUSAND YEARS after the pyramids were built. Clearly, for Tsoukalos "ancient texts" is a rather elastic term.
Al-Maqrizi did in fact draw on many genuine ancient texts of greater or lesser reliability, though these were classical Arabic texts of the first millennium CE, not ancient Egyptian records, written as they were in a then-unreadable tongue. Despite this, his history carried a great deal of authority in the fifteenth century, but nevertheless, in order to use Al-Maqrizi as an "ancient text" in support of the theory that aliens assisted with the building of the pyramids, Tsoukalos would need to demonstrate a series of things, not least of which is whether the passage from Al-Maqrizi derives from a genuine ancient text and whether the original text is reputable and accurate.
Significant doubt exists on this matter because Al-Maqrizi was not particularly well-informed about ancient Egypt. He believed, for example, that hieroglyphics were a secret code for alchemy, something that the modern decipherment of hieroglyphics disproved. He also made claims for marvelous materials being stored in thirty chambers beneath the Great Pyramid, which no excavation or exploration has found. (Logically, if the story of the chambers were true, they must have been accessible; and since they are not, then the story can't be true unless one believes folklore lives four thousand years unchanged.)
So, let us give Tsoukalos credit for attempting to cite an "ancient text," and then let us criticize him for not quite understanding what an "ancient text" is or how one should judge the accuracy and reliability of its contents. After all, in 1400, the "ancient texts" of the era claimed that the pyramids were in fact Joseph's granaries.
In the near-contemporary Travels of Sir John Mandeville (c. 1357-1371 CE), for example, the three pyramids of Giza (two large and the third smaller one) are described this way:
And now also I shall speak of another thing that is beyond Babylon, above the flood of the Nile, toward the desert between Africa and Egypt; that is to say, of the garners [= granaries] of Joseph, that he let make for to keep the grains for the peril of the dear years. And they be made of stone, full well made of masons' craft; of the which two be marvellously great and high, and the tother ne be not so great. And every garner hath a gate for to enter within, a little high from the earth; for the land is wasted and fallen since the garners were made. And within they be all full of serpents. And above the garners without be many scriptures of diverse languages. And some men say, that they be sepultures [= tombs] of great lords, that were sometime, but that is not true, for all the common rumour and speech is of all the people there, both far and near, that they be the garners of Joseph; and so find they in their scriptures, and in their chronicles. On the other part, if they were sepultures, they should not be void within, ne they should have no gates for to enter within; for ye may well know, that tombs and sepultures be not made of such greatness, nor of such highness; wherefore it is not to believe, that they be tombs or sepultures. (Chapter VII)
So, given that medieval knowledge of the pyramids was spotty at best (unless one truly thinks them giant silos), we need something more to judge whether a particular story, especially a fanciful one, from a medieval manuscript ought to be believed. This is never more true than when claiming that the medieval texts should be used to overturn everything we know about the history of the era four thousand years before they were written.
Today I’m taking a break from aliens and alternative archaeology to present a bit of classic—and supposedly nonfictional—horror. The following tale was the 97th of 107 stories of the Seneca tribe of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) collected by Jeremiah Curtain on the Cattarugus reservation near Versailles, N.Y. sometime between 1883 and 1887, written with a lead pencil on notepaper and then reconstructed and translated by J. N. B. Hewitt at the Smithsonian Institution years later. Hewitt believed the story was a product of the “story-teller’s art” rather than a genuine myth, but nevertheless it is a fascinating early and non-Western tale of the risen, hungry dead—what we might today term a “zombie” rather than a vampire.
97. The Vampire Skeleton
A man with his wife, starting from a Seneca village, went from it two days' journey to hunt. Having built a lodge, the man began hunting. When he had obtained a sufficient store of meat, they started for home. They packed all the meat they could carry and left the rest at the lodge. Setting out in the morning, after traveling all day they came to a cabin in which they found all the people dead. The last person to die was the owner of the lodge. The people of the village had put the body on a shelf in a bark box which they had made. When the man and his wife came it was already dark. The husband thought it better to spend the night there than to continue the journey. He gathered a quantity, of wood with which he made a fire. The woman began to cook, broiling meat and making a cake of pounded corn, which she placed under the hot ashes to bake. The man lay down to rest a while and fell asleep. While cooking the woman heard a noise behind her, near the place where her husband lay; it sounded like the noise made in the chewing of flesh. She began to think about the corpse on the shelf and remembered that the dead man was a wizard. Putting on more wood and making the fire blaze up, she looked toward the bunk, where she saw a stream of blood trickling out. From this she knew at once that her husband had been killed by the dead man.
The bread under the ashes was baited. She then spoke, saying, "I must make a torch and bring some water." Thereupon she prepared a torch of hickory bark taken from the lodge, making it long enough to last until she could run home. Taking the pail, she stole out, but once outside of the door she quickly dropped the pail, and ran through the woods with all her might. She had gotten more than halfway home when the dead man, the vampire, found that she was gone. At once he rushed out, whooping, and ran after her. She heard him, and knew that he was following her. The sound of the whooping came nearer and nearer, and for a while, unnerved completely by fear, she could scarcely move, but at last, having regained her strength, she ran on. Again the vampire whooped, and the woman fell down from fear and exhaustion; but she arose again and ran on, until finally she came within sight of a place near her own village where there was a dance. The pursuing man-eating skeleton was gaining on her, and her torch was almost gone; but, running ahead, she fell into the lodge in which the dancing was in progress, and then fainted. When she came to her senses, she told what had occurred to her and her husband.
In the morning a body of men went over to the cabin, in which they found the bones of her husband, from which all the flesh had been eaten. Taking down the bark box, they looked at the skeleton of the dead man and found his face and hands bloody. The chief said it was not right to leave dead people in that way; therefore they dug a hole, in which they buried the man-eating skeleton, and took the bones of the other man home. The chief had him buried and ordered that thereafter all dead people should be buried in the ground. At first the dead were put on scaffolds, but the people used to see sights which frightened them, for the dead would rise and run after the living. Then it was resolved to build bark lodges for the dead and to put them on shelves therein. This plan did not work well, as the foregoing story shows. About one hundred years ago, says the relator, the present system of earth burial was begun. Before the burial system was adopted they used to put the corpse on the ground, into a chamber like a room dug into a hillside. If the deceased was married, the husband or wife had to watch with the corpse in this place, and every ten days for a year friends brought food to the watcher. If the watcher lived through the year, he or she was then brought out and became free to marry again. The watcher often died in the excavation, however, for it was dark and foul.
Once a man left with the body of his wife heard, after a time, an occasional noise of craunching and eating. The next time his friends came with food he told them of this. Thereupon they held a council, and the chief sent several men into the excavation to ascertain the cause of the noise. They found that the bodies had been eaten, and that a deep hole led down into the ground, which must have been made by a great serpent. After that the Seneca ceased to bury in this way and put their dead into the ground as they do at present.
When it was the custom to place bodies in the bark lodges the husband or wife had to remain in the lodge and look after the dead for a year. At the end of this period the bones were taken out and fastened to a post in an erect position, and a great dance was held around them.
In the interest of fairness, today I’d like to look at one of the pieces of evidence for the reality of Atlantis: the work of the respected the ancient geographer Strabo. Then, since I can’t resist, I’d like to look at how pseudo-scientists, alternative historians, and ancient alien theorists completely misunderstand evidence in their own favor because of their poor scholarship, ironically casting even more doubt on the soundness of their theories.
In a passage of the Geography discussing earthquakes, Strabo makes his only mention of Atlantis, discussing the earlier (and lost) work of the philosopher Posidonius:
On the Ancient Aliens episode “Underwater Worlds” (Nov. 11, 2010), so-called “ancient astronaut theorists” argued about the existence of Atlantis and its possible connection to aliens. I previously discussed this episode's inconsistencies. Despite the official position of the ancient astronaut theory’s main organization, the Archaeology, Astronautics and SETI Research Association (AAS-RA), that Atlantis never existed, AAS-RA head Giorgio Tsoukalos appeared on the program to promote his theory that Atlantis was in fact an extraterrestrial spacecraft using what he claimed were genuine Greek myths of bronze islands that fell from the sky—UFOs. This assertion has bothered me since I first saw the episode a few months ago, and I decided to investigate further.
At first blush this theory seems impossible. The Greek philosopher Aristotle doubted the ability of even small rocks—meteors—to fall from the sky and instead believed them to be the tops of exploded volcanoes, but the Roman Pliny did believe in falling space rocks. In neither case, however, did these ancient authors suggest that whole islands were descending from the heavens. This would have been a blatant impossibility, since in the mythological scheme of things the Greek sky was itself a dome made of bronze (Iliad 17.425) or iron (Odyssey 15.329).
In order to make the case that Atlantis was a UFO, Ancient Aliens provided two pieces of evidence. Let’s take them in order. First, according to the narrator of the program, “One myth tells of the Titan goddess named Asteria who fell from the sky and became an island.” But is this what the myth really says? Surprisingly, the show has it almost right. But not quite.
My new online exclusive article on aliens and ancient texts is now available. In this piece, I explore the ancient astronaut theorists' beloved but ill-defined "ancient texts" and their demand that we view fantastic descriptions in these texts as literal reports of prehistoric alien visitation. I showed that following the ancient astronaut theorists' analytical method at face value, we encounter an irresolvable paradox, one that seriously undercuts the ancient astronaut theory's pretention to understanding ancient literature better than the experts. READ THE ARTICLE
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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