Charles Berlitz's "Mysteries of Forgotten Worlds": An Uncanny Echo of Graham Hancock Decades Earlier
It’s been a very long time since I opened one of Charles Berlitz’s books. His musty old paperbacks were neither the most famous nor the most extreme of the imitators of Chariots of the Gods to hit bookstores in the 1970s, and his fantasies about the Bermuda Triangle and Atlantis have long overshadowed some of his less important books. But yesterday I had to open his Mysteries from Forgotten Worlds in order to check references that David Childress had made to it, and I was rather surprised to see that Berlitz’s book is a fairly straightforward precursor to Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods and Magicians of the Gods.
Both books propose that an advanced civilization existed prior to the last Ice Age, that it produced inexplicable architectural wonders, that it was associated with Atlantis, that it was remembered in myths including those of white civilizing gods, and that it was destroyed by a massive natural disaster.
Let’s start by stipulating that there were a lot of very similar books in the 1970s, and also let’s stipulate that many of the similarities are due to both men drawing on the same set of source texts—Charles Hapgood’s Maps of the Ancient Sea-Kings, Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis and Ragnarok, the latter being the first to make that same set of claims. We ought also to mention that Hancock has cited Berlitz from time to time, and therefore must be familiar with his work. They also share a love of repeating uncritically long-debunked claims. Berlitz, for example, describes the so-called “Elephant Mound” of Wisconsin, claimed in the mid-1800s to represent a mammoth, and recognized by the late 1800s to actually be a bear. Eighty years later Berlitz wrote “In the United States, the shape of an elephant or mammoth can be clearly discerned in the Elephant Mound of Wisconsin, when considered from above…” while Hancock referred to the same Victorian preoccupation with Native American “elephants” in his Fingerprints of the Gods.
It is the way that specific material that repeats in both books fascinates me, just in terms of seeing the same themes repeated at a four decade remove. Compare Berlitz’s formulation in Mysteries to Hancock’s in Fingerprints of the Gods, written almost 25 years later:
“A somewhat iconoclastic question increasingly confronts the investigator of ancient history: is it possible that there were other civilizations in the long history of Man that we know nothing of, or of which we hear only vague echoes, often confused with cultures that are more or less familiar to us?”
“Not for the first time I felt myself confronted by the dizzying possibility that an entire episode in the story of mankind might have been forgotten. […] What is prehistory, after all, if not a time forgotten--a time for which we have no records? What is prehistory if not an epoch of impenetrable obscurity through which our ancestors passed but about which we have no conscious remembrance?”
The only real difference is one characteristic of its era. The earlier writer spoke in the third person, pretending to be an objective observer. The more recent writer spoke in the first person, a subjective advocate. The sentiment, if not the ego, is the same.
Berlitz was also an advocate of the idea Hancock currently pushes that ancient monuments were intentionally crafted by the lost civilization as a warning about natural disasters. “It is almost as if someone who was here before had left messages for us in the shape of certain key monuments and buildings which would help other races advanced enough to read them, for guidance and sometimes for a warning.” Berlitz, like Hancock, took his inspiration from the Victorians who imagined that the Great Pyramid contained various secret codes, but it is interesting to see how they both built that into a remarkably similar set of claims.
Berlitz, though, was less effective a writer than Hancock. Where Hancock hides his debt to Donnelly beneath a mountain of spurious citations to modern sources, Berlitz literally copied whole pages out of Donnelly’s Atlantis and presented them all but verbatim. But there is one place where Berlitz was more creative than Hancock. Hancock has happily endorsed one specific type of cataclysm to destroy his lost civilization—first a “pole shift” in Fingerprints, following Charles Hapgood, who copied ultimately from Brasseur de Bourbourg, and then a comet, following Donnelly, who echoed writers going back to Edmund Halley. But Berlitz won’t agree to just one disaster. He argues for a disaster but throws every possible explanation at the wall, including all of the above, something to do with magnets and volcanoes, and a few more besides. And, unable to commit even to that, he throws in nuclear weapons to boot. Hancock explains away all the material with reference to a comet, which
Both men, however, have a fascinating similarity when it comes to hating mainstream academics. We all know of Hancock’s complaint that academia won’t accept his recycled Victorian views. But here is Berlitz doing the same exact thing with a laundry list of topics that overlap Hancock’s own interests to a remarkable degree:
In the purely scientific approach of today, legends, unexplained evidences of ancient knowledge, historical anachronisms, inexplicable artifacts and existing ruins, coincidences in unrelated languages, past geological catastrophes, the world-wide spread and periodic destruction of animal life, the backward extension of the age of man, and finally ESP and race memory, the existence of Atlantis or other sunken lands, is not going to be accorded general acceptance by the scientific disciplines. The problem is not only related to rewriting textbooks but also concerns the insularity of outlook shared by many who like to consider the history of man and the world in well-ordered predictable patterns—which it never is.
Oddly enough, both men end on the same note. Hancock concludes that we must study history in order to understand how to prepare for disaster and avoid the mistakes that ended the pre-Ice Age civilization, and Berlitz gives the same spiel: “But, besides the fascination of history, its undiscovered mysteries, its splendid vistas and its still largely unexplored epochs that seem to extend ever farther back in time, the study of vanished civilizations and the reasons for their disappearance has a negative value as well as a positive one, teaching us what not to do—so that we may ourselves survive.” Hancock, however, is closer to Berlitz in Fingerprints than in Magicians. In the latter, he adds a spiritual dimension, casting the catastrophe in terms of the emergence of a new and perfect global consciousness.
Berlitiz’s Mysteries from Forgotten Worlds is shorter than any of Hancock’s books, and it is instructive to see the way that tastes in the fringe market have changed over time. Berlitz throws spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks, pretends to be an objective observer, and generally stands at a distance from his subject. Hancock advocates for one specific fringe view, adopts the pose of the Great Man adventurer, and generally identifies himself and his personality with his subject matter—except, of course, when called out on it, at which point he is just “reporting” others’ views. Berlitz omits direct reference to most sources, and Hancock scrupulously apes the appearance of history books with hundreds of worthless footnotes to secondary sources. Most importantly, Berlitz and the writers of his generation tend to talk in generalities and offer vague conjectures based on few facts, but Hancock and the modern writers emulate science much more closely, with charts, graphs, and equations and a laundry-list of half-understood scientific material in the hopes of cloaking their speculation in the garb of science.
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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