Fringe world is starting close in on itself, and it’s starting to get weird. In comments on his blog this week, former America Unearthed host Scott Wolter said that he is currently reading Graham Hancock’s Magicians of the Gods and has found in it “convincing”: “I’m currently reading Graham Hancock’s new book that convincingly explores what catastrophic event likely caused this early high culture to almost go extinct.” Wolter said he is “thoroughly enjoying” Hancock’s work and will be weighing in on the comet that destroyed Atlantis after he finishes the book. He also announced that he will be opining on the real secret of Oak Island after the end of Curse of Oak Island, but won't say anything about it “out of respect for the show and the network.” He did, however, agree that almost all of the stories about Oak Island are exaggerations and hoaxes, and then announced he will soon be “outing” an “unethical academic,” with details to come.
Wolter, you will recall, appeared a little while back on J. Hutton Pulitzer’s podcast, where Pulitzer made him uncomfortable by asking his views on just how Aryan the ruling class of ancient Egypt was. (I wonder if he picked up on Graham Hancock’s references to the whiteness of the Aryan masters of his lost civilization?) I’m sure many of you have been following the ongoing developments in Pulitzer’s ever-expanding claims about the supposedly Roman sword he alleges to have been found off Oak Island. If you haven’t been keeping up, the most ridiculous of the claims involve the sword’s supposedly technological powers. “The sword has an ancient ocean navigational device built into it which causes the sword to point true north,” Pulitzer wrote last month. “Such magnetic qualities are only found in authentic items of antiquity, not cast iron or manufactured stone replicas.” How that would work Pulitzer did not say, nor did he provide any proof of this seemingly impossible feat for non-magnetic bronze of such a weight that gravity easily outmatches the Earth’s weak magnetic field.
In a website posting about the sword and its close cousin copies last week (updating a 2005 discussion), Roman artifact retailer (and reproduction specialist) David Kenney wrote that he felt it represented proof of ancient knowledge of trans-Atlantic contact:
My observations based on over a decade of research of artifacts from various ancient European and Asian cultures of different eras suggest that at some point in antiquity there was a widely held belief among tribal peoples of central to northern Europe and Asia, that there was a legendary or mythical sacred island, or islands, or place to the far north in the west that was associated with a meteor strike; iron; the magnetic; the water compass; navigation; a blade smith deity; a volcano (that included volcanic lightning); a war deity (connected to a warrior); a female sea deity who can be armed; fertility; regeneration; solar worship; a suggestion of prophecy; and the celestial (most notably the Pole star). Most likely much of that belief was based on ancient sea lore about visitations to Iceland and Greenland - that traveled among peoples who did not have a known, or accepted, written language. Notice that when the sword is vertically oriented to the north with the blade downward, the statuette hilt’s face looks to the west.
I think the last line, about the vertical orientation to the north and west (i.e. a right angle; how mysterious!), is what Pulitzer, in his conversation with Kenney that was his professed source for the claim, misunderstood as being a compass bearing rather than Kenney’s own terminology for describing the sword while in a particular position. I’d guess Pulitzer confused orienting the sword to the north for some symbolic reason for the sword orienting itself to the north.
The blather about lands to the north is a somewhat confused description of the Greco-Roman Thule with a strong assist from comet-oriented pseudo-history such as Ignatius Donnelly’s Ragnarok and Graham Hancock’s rewrite of the same, Magicians of the Gods. But if we want to get down to brass tacks—and here I am too exhausted to go through the usual thousands of years of bibliography—it probably traces back to scientific articles from the early 2000s that made the claim that the Greek explorer Pytheas had visited Ultima Thule, the legendary northern island, where he saw “the grave where the Sun fell dead,” where Phaeton crashed. It is a frequent claim that the myth of Phaeton actually describes a meteor strike, and since 1976 scientists have tried to place this strike on the island of Saaremaa in the Baltic Sea, though with unconvincing arguments drawn on the similarity between Phaeton’s crash site in the Hellenistic Argonautica of Apollonius. It bothers me, though, that the quote given for Pytheas returns no matches, and I was not familiar with where it came from. As best I can tell, the line, given in scientific articles and book chapters like this one, is a mangling of a line from Geminus of Rhodes, who reported that the barbarians showed Pytheas the place where the sun set—a far cry from a meteor crash site. For anyone who cares, the exact words are in Geminus’ Phaenomena at 6.9, where he writes that Pytheas “in his treatise ‘On the Ocean’ [writes]: ‘the Barbarian showed us the place where the sun goes to rest. For it was in the case that in these parts the nights were very short, in some places two, in others three hours long, so that the sun rose again a short time after it had set’” (trans. Arthur G. Chater). If that sounds like an asteroid crash to you, more power to you. Geminus does not call this place Thule, but later writers understood it to be such. Modern writers have copied from each other so much that the original context all but vanished.
So there’s the secret origin of our wacky claim about meteors on far northern islands and thus our north-pointing magic sword. What a crock.
Finally, I want to mention that Micah Hanks has a new article “investigating” how science accounts for ghosts. Amidst the usual thicket of verbiage that ultimately amounts to nothing, he offers up this faulty peroration:
In this case, as with every institution of a “good” scientific theory, we need one that predicts a number of observations accurately—based on data, rather than faith or belief—using a basic model consisting of arbitrary elements to help guide these observations. Our theory must also correctly, and definitely, predict future observations of the phenomenon in question.
That’s a thought experiment, not a research program. A phenomenon must actually exist in order be researched. To see how much of a waste of time that final paragraph would render research, try substituting an obviously fictional construct:
So the question at the end of the day, rather than being “do Smurfs exist”, should instead be this: “If Smurfs represent any valid, tangible phenomenon, what might account for their existence, and can this—whatever it may be—occur in keeping with a good scientific theory?”
Would we then devote our resources to speculating on the reality of Smurfs or drawing potential evolutionary charts to account for them? Or can we merely attribute the “phenomenon” to animation? In other words, Hanks has apparently undone all of the work of the scientific revolution and returned us to medieval scholasticism, when scholars like Thomas Aquinas would speculate groundlessly on such useless questions as whether angels might possess the power of bilocation, fruitless speculation parodied by William Chillingworth in the Religion of Protestants (1637) as asking “whether a Million of Angels may not fit upon a Needle’s point.”
That said, ghosts are a phenomenon, though one that all extant evidence suggests resides within individuals’ perceptions as mediated through cultural expectations. Is that not valid enough for Hanks? And if tangibility is a criterion for ghostly reality, please do let me know what a ghost feels like. I have never been so favored as to touch one.
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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