I have some interesting news: I am scheduled to appear next Thursday night at 9 PM ET on The Rundown Live, the radio program that frequently plays host to fringe figures like Scott Wolter and Steve Quayle. I’ll be on to discuss why I don’t subscribe to the “alternative” view of human history and some of the problems I see with fringe history’s approach to research.
I don’t want my transition to imply that Fortean researcher Martin J. Clemens is a poor researcher—we have had many pleasant and productive conversations on Twitter—but I do need to point out that his article yesterday at Mysterious Universe on the allegedly mysterious stone head of Guatemala is incomplete. Clemens claimed that the stone head could be an “attempt to replicate the look of the moai of Easter Island by an Olmec stone craftsman” and thus prove Polynesian contact with the Olmec. As I pointed out in 2013, the stone head in question was carved by a known individual—a farm administrator—in 1936 to honor his dead wife. His neighbors saw him do it. He even put a sign on the face stating as much. I pointed this out to Clemens yesterday, and he thanked me for the information; but as of this writing the post has not been corrected, which appears to be par for the course for Mysterious Universe.
But enough of that… Let’s instead look at a case of genuinely atrocious research.
The Epoch Times, a website and newspaper that increasingly relies on fringe history click-bait to supplement its primary mission covering the Chinese diaspora community, published an article this week claiming that the ancient Greeks visited Chavin-era Peru. The piece would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that it’s based on the work of physicist Enrico Mattievitch, whom I mentioned earlier this year when the media used him as a source for the history of Atlantis. Mattievitch believes that Greek mythology took place in South America, which he said the Greeks saw as the Underworld. By his own admission, his claims recycle the work of David Childress and Henrietta Mertz, which ought to tell you how seriously we should take them.
The Epoch Times is summarizing a chapter from Mattievitch’s 1992 book Journey to the Mythological Inferno, which was translated into English in 2010.
The thrust of the claim is that Hesiod’s account of the Gorgons in the Theogony (c. 650 BCE) can be taken as a reliable guide to locate their home in Chavin-era Peru. To untangle this we need to start with what Hesiod actually said before looking at what Mattievitch claims he said. In the Theogony (lines 270ff.) Hesiod wrote of the Graiae and the “Gorgons who dwell beyond glorious Ocean in the frontier land towards Night where are the clear-voiced Hesperides, Sthenno, and Euryale, and Medusa who suffered a woeful fate” (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White). The Epoch Times and Mattievitch would like us to read this as being the same land described in lines 736-744:
And there, all in their order, are the sources and ends of gloomy earth and misty Tartarus and the unfruitful sea and starry heaven, loathsome and dank, which even the gods abhor. It is a great gulf, and if once a man were within the gates, he would not reach the floor until a whole year had reached its end, but cruel blast upon blast would carry him this way and that. And this marvel is awful even to the deathless gods.
It takes a bit of effort to equate the two, since in the latter passage Hesiod is describing the gates to the Underworld, and in the former he states only that the Gorgons live on the edge of the Ocean, near where night replaces day. In Hesiod’s worldview, the known world was surrounded by the River Ocean, on whose far shore were fantasy lands that abutted the great gate that served both for the sun to enter at night and the souls of the dead to descend into Hades. (This seems to imply a spherical earth, and it differs from Near Eastern cultures which had separate gates for dawn and dusk.) Although this cosmology is made clear in Hesiod’s text, Mattievitch, following Henrietta Mertz, sees this as the Amazon River, on the far side of the Atlantic, despite the fact that the Amazon, so far as I know, contains no chasm millions of miles deep into the center of the earth.
In so equating the two, Mattievitch then identifies the following lines (744f.) with a Peruvian temple at Chavín de Huántar, which is just so flattering to the Peruvian architects:
There stands the awful home of murky Night wrapped in dark clouds. In front of it the son of Iapetus (Atlas) stands immovably upholding the wide heaven upon his head and unwearying hands, where Night and Day draw near and greet one another as they pass the great threshold of bronze: and while the one is about to go down into the house, the other comes out at the door.
Here, the “house” is meant as the underground world—the “House” of Hades—where day and night spend their off hours, but Mattievitch intends for us to read this literally as a physical building with a semi-subterranean structure, while also asking us to take Atlas symbolically, as a mountain. Thus, for him, the description of the Titan Atlas holding up the heavens near the Gate of Hades at the edge of the world is “really” a depiction of Peru’s Old Temple at Chavín de Huántar, with its underground passages, located before the Andes Mountains, which he identifies with Atlas. It is a case of special pleading, where the symbolic and literal aspects are chosen solely for the convenience of the author. Needless to say, the Old Temple did not have a giant bronze threshold, as bronze wasn’t known to the Chavin people.
The Old Temple features images of a jaguar god, whose smiling visage and distinctive fangs Mattievitch assumes were brought to Peru by the Greeks from their own image of the Gorgon, a monster whose face is modeled on that of the lion in ancient Near Eastern art. Fangs are of course not unique to lions or jaguars and require no such connection, but Mattievitch appears to ignore the process of development of the Gorgon image, which underwent many metamorphoses. Many scholars have connected (at some remove) the Gorgon’s distinctive snake hair and grimace to Mesopotamian images of the decapitated Humbaba, the giant whose face had wild hair, teeth, and beard, depicted as entrails. In the seventh century BCE, Medusa was depicted as a female version of a centaur, and in possible connection with Humbaba, some Archaic images even show her severed head as bearded. At any rate, Chavín de Huántar is probably older than the classic version of Medusa’s snaky semi-leonine visage, but the similarities are only astonishing if you do not consider jaguars and lions to be very similar.
There remains to dispense with Mattievitch’s final piece of evidence, which either he or the Epoch Times has apparently misunderstood:
A later Chavin myth about the god Huari is a Peruvian version of the Greek myth of Perseus, Mattievich said. The local people are said to have invited Huari to a feast, planning to trap and kill him there. Huari saw through the ploy, however, and turned them all to stone. The feast and the subsequent petrification is said to have occurred at the Chavin de Huantar.
Huari (Wari) is a culture, not a god, and the story seems to be mangled from one told of Tunupa (conflated with Viracocha, possibly the staff god of Wari) by Don Juan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti, the author of the Relation of the Antiquities of the Kingdom of Peru, written sometime between 1613 and 1630—hardly a genuine Chavín source! Mercifully, Clements R. Markham translated this text so I don’t have to:
On another occasion they say that he began to preach with loving words, in a town where they were holding a great festival and banquet to celebrate a wedding, and they would not listen to the preaching of Tonapa. For this they were cursed and turned into stones, which may be seen to this day. The same thing happened in Pucara and other places. They further say that this Tonapa, in his wanderings, came to the mountains of Caravaya, where he erected a very large cross…
Tunupa also turned the people of Tiwanaku to stone for failing to heed his preaching, thus accounting for the great many statues found in that city, according to Pachacuti. This was not actually a myth about a banquet but a callback to the ancient belief that the creator god, Tunupa or Viracocha, had turned the failed first creation to stone.
Mattievitch interpolated into the banquet story an attack on Tunupa from a subsequent incident when he was taken prisoner and condemned to death while carrying his cross—a clear Christian interpolation. Mattievitch asks us to read his mangled and conflated story as a reflection of Perseus’ dinner with Polydektes, where that evil king tried to kill Perseus by requesting the head of the Gorgon as a wedding gift. When Perseus obtained the head, he gained the power to turn men to stone. This story bears virtually no similarity to Tunupa’s tale—and indeed in Apollodorus (Library 2.4.2) doesn’t feature a banquet at all—and at any rate the Peruvian story had been both Christianized and harmonized with European storytelling conventions anyway.
In short, the only way Mattievitch’s claims hold up is to be completely ignorant of the texts they claim to elucidate.
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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