Science Channel Flat-Earther Killed Making TV Show; Plus: Erich von Däniken Gets Another Ancient Text Very Wrong
Over the weekend, pseudoscience television claimed a life. The death of Michael “Mad Mike” Hughes while filming for the Science Channel was not the first death in unscripted TV, but his Wile E. Coyote escapades in a failed effort to prove the Earth flat marked a particularly ridiculous low for the Science Channel and its parent company, Discovery Communications. The Science Channel was shooting a pseudo-documentary series called Homemade Astronauts in which Hughes attempted to launch a homemade rocket 5,000 feet into the air in the hope of using it as a model for a bigger rocket that would let him see the edge of the flat Earth. Just like Wile E. Coyote in the Looney Tunes, his rocket exploded, but since he was not a cartoon character, he died as he lived, utterly irresponsible. The Science Channel and its outgoing chief executive offered their condolences but accepted no responsibility for enabling ad encouraging this staggering act of utter stupidity, which they filmed. In fact, the Science Channel absolved itself on Twitter, claiming it was merely there to “chronicle his journey.”
An Indian scholar claimed that the ancient Sanskrit epic The Ramayana features historical accounts of interactions between Homo sapiens and Homo erectus. Dr. Rangan Ramakrishnan made the claim in his ten-volume study of the Ramayana, its traditional author Valmiki, and its later reception and adaptation in Indian culture. He holds a doctorate in yoga (!) and produces content valorizing ancient India and the Vedas. An article in the South China Morning Post quoted the author on the bizarre claim. Here, Ramakrishnan speaks of Hanuman, a monkey god, and the Vanaras, his monkey retainers:
I have two topics to discuss today. The first concerns American Cosmic author Diana Pasulka, whose Twitter account created controversy over the weekend. In a series of tweets, Pasulka’s Twitter account alleged that Tom DeLonge is a Freemason, that his To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science is a U.S. government “psyop,” that TTSA “scientists” were defecting from the organization or want to, that U.S. presidents engage in pagan lunar worship rituals, and that she would henceforth associate only with members of Jacques Vallée’s supposed “Invisible College” of UFO researchers. Late on Saturday, she put out a statement saying that she had been hacked and was “mortified” by what the hacker said while posing as her on Twitter and in email. She conceded, however, that “Some things were actually things in my email, but nothing I would say publicly.” She did not specify which of the inflammatory claims were her own. It’s probably enough to know that at least some are.
For a show that almost literally no one watched—averaging only around 500,000 viewers across its four-episode run, fewer than syndicated reruns of off-network sitcoms—Megan Fox’s Legends of the Lost has inspired a lot of discussion and upset online, particularly around the question of Viking women warriors. Frankly, I find this to be the least interesting “mystery” on Fox’s show, but it raises a fascinating question about archaeological vs. historical knowledge and how an idea does or does not become a consensus concept in the creation of our story of the past.
It feels like a lifetime ago that Megan Fox launched Legends of the Lost with an episode devoted to the question of women’s roles in Viking society, and it is just possible that the number of articles and reviews devoted to the show outstripped the number of people who actually watched the series. Indeed, if December hadn’t been such a slow month, I’d have probably ignored the show entirely. But I reviewed that first episode, and archaeology professor Howard M. R. Williams of the University of Chester, who specializes in mortuary archaeology, particularly in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian contexts, has posted a lengthy rebuttal to my review, and those of other critics of Fox, accusing me of not fully appreciating the depth of originality in Fox’s depiction of Viking life, calling my review “completely wrong.”
The other day, archaeologist David S. Anderson posted an article on Adventures in Poor Taste discussing the Marvel Comics villain Apocalypse and why he is associated with ancient Egypt. In the piece, Anderson traces back fascination and fear of all things Egyptian to the 1922 opening of the tomb of Tutankhamen and the resulting media frenzy surrounding both the tomb opening and the subsequent allegations that a pharaonic “curse” had felled several of the participants in the excavation. I know Anderson slightly from Twitter, so I hope he will forgive me if I dissent a bit from his analysis.
I’ve been reading an old article by Hayrettin Yücesoy with the lengthy title of “Translation as Self-Consciousness: Ancient Sciences, Antediluvian Wisdom, and the ‘Abbāsid Translation Movement,” published in the Journal of World History back in 2009. I had originally downloaded the article in the hope of finding some specific information about Arabic translations from Greek in order to investigate questions I had about the Greek material underlying some of the Arabic stories of the pyramids and Hermes Trismegistus, but in reading the article, the “antediluvian” section ended up offering an interesting perspective that is worth sharing.
For the past week or so, I’ve been working on an interesting project that turned out to be much larger than I intended it to be. One of the unsolved questions surrounding the compendium of medieval legends about Egypt known variously as the Akhbar al-zaman (History of Time) and the Digest of Wonders is the question of who wrote it. The manuscripts of the book give two different authors with no great certainty that either is the actual author. The first attribution is to al-Mas‘udi, an early medieval historian who wrote a book called the Akhbar al-zaman, but which appears to have had almost completely different content. The second is Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah, also known as al-Wasifi or in the West as Alguazif, about whom almost nothing is known except that he lived two centuries too late to have written the book that otherwise passes under his name. The situation has not changed since Baron Bernard Carra de Vaux translated the Akhbar al-zaman into French in 1898 and found himself unable to name an author:
Last Friday, Brent Swancer of Mysterious Universe posted an article discussing the famed Emerald Tablet, a medieval Arabic Hermetic text, perhaps of Late Antique origin, that gained fame in the West as a distillation of the secrets of Hermeticism and alchemy. But it was also pretty clear that he hadn’t done much research beyond Wikipedia for the Emerald Tablet, since his article betrayed little understanding of the text or its transmission across the centuries. He even refers to the extant text as a “section,” as though there were much more. It also doesn’t help that in places he conflates the medieval Emerald Tablet with the twentieth century “Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean,” a set of modern fakes cribbed from H. P. Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long, and other weird fiction writers by Maurice Doreal. He also writes that the object is “referred to variously as the Smaragdine Table, Tabula Smaragdina, or more commonly simply the Emerald Tablet,” apparently without knowing that smaragdus is the Latin word for “emerald” (Greek: σμάραγδος) and the three titles of the tablet are simply the Latin original, an anglicization of the Latin, and an English translation of the Latin.
After a great deal of hard work, I completed my translation of the Hermetic history of the Giants given in Alfonso X of Castile’s General Estoria, composed in the late 1200s. This undertaking was more involved than I expected, both because I had to learn a new language—medieval Castilian, also known as Old Spanish—in order to read it, and because Alfonso’s writers used complex grammar, pointless repetition, and ambiguous vocabulary that made it difficult to understand exactly what was being said in some places. A few of the words used can’t be found in dictionaries of Old Spanish and only rarely appear in other medieval documents, making them quite challenging to decipher. As a result, I am a little less certain about the particulars of this translation than I am for most, but the overall meaning is clear.
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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