This past weekend saw a number of depressingly awful stories about ancient history. The most prominent one revolved around a newspaper report about a man’s claim to have discovered Atlantis yet again. The Daily Mail published the report on Sept. 29 and was picked up by the Russian propaganda site Sputnik a few hours later and spread around the world. Heretofore largely unknown Ancient Architects blogger Matt Sibson alleges in an interview and accompanying video essay that Atlantis was actually the phantom island of Frisland seen on a number of old maps. If that name sounds familiar… well, it connects to another old fringe history chestnut.
Sibson claims that the fictitious island had to have been real, even though it does not actually exist, and he uses Irish legends associated with the homeland of the ancient Tuatha Dé Danann, the ancient gods. “It was shown in so many maps in the 16th and 17th century and then it disappeared – it can't be a mistake,” he told the Daily Mail. He claims that the island was copied from Ice Age maps drawn by a lost civilization, and that it represents a portion of the Atlantis basin off the coast of what is now Ireland that was above water during the Ice Age. His evidence for this is less than compelling: “Some people do point out that there was 2km of ice there, but there is a gap of more than a thousand years where the ice had melted between 14,700 BC and 12,900 BC. Plato also talked about elephants on Atlantis, but I think he may have been referring to woolly mammoths.”
I will give him this: If he were better-read, he might have been able to make a case for this north Atlantic island by tying it to Ogygia, the legendary island where (among other things) Kronos (Saturn) was supposed kept prisoner. As Plutarch reported (De Defectu Oraculorum 18 and De Faciae 27), this island was located in the North Atlantic and was known to the Celts. In the Odyssey, Homer said it was the home of Calypso, a daughter of Atlas, and thus could be considered an island of Atlantis, since “Atlantis” was also a title of Calypso, meaning “Daughter of Atlas.” But Sibson isn’t terribly good at his own subject, and instead he focuses on the silly argument that ancient Irish people liked circles, and Plato said Atlantis was circular in shape—i.e., looks like, therefore is.
The trouble is that Frisland isn’t just a mistake on an old map; it’s also part of an old hoax. Frisland is best known from its appearance on the infamous Zeno Map, concocted in 1558 but pretending to date back to the 1300s in order to support the claim of the Zeno family of Venice to have been greater explorers of the Atlantic than Columbus from rival Genoa. Regular readers will remember the Zeno hoax because the accompanying narrative, in which medieval explorers from Venice meet Zichmni, the ruler of islands to the south of Frisland. Zichmni was identified in the 1700s, based on wishful thinking and bad reasoning, with Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, who in the 1800s and 1900s was imagined to have discovered America due to some references in the Zeno Narrative to lands beyond Greenland. The claim was popularized on the History Channel and its H2 spinoff five years ago. Fred W. Lucas conclusively debunked the claim in 1898, but his objections have fallen on deaf ears among true believers.
Because the Zeno Map and Narrative were taken to be genuine from 1558 down to the 1700s, Frisland appeared on many European maps despite the objective fact of its non-existence to any sailor who crossed the waters where it supposedly stood. Sibson, being untroubled by this history of hoaxing, simply accepts the Zeno map as authentic and proceeds untroubled by complicating factors.
This lack of understanding is also evident in Brent Swancer’s Saturday Mysterious Universe article on “anomalous” artifacts that shouldn’t exist. The majority of them are culled from “mystery” books of the 1960s and the appendix to Cremo and Thompson’s Forbidden Archaeology. I’ve posted the original reports for a number of them in my Library, and the claims are not terribly impressive. Most are wonder stories revolving around alleged discoveries of modern tools or jewelry in ancient rocks; in the vast majority of cases, the rocks are recent calcifications, not stones from the depths of time.
In several cases, Swancer is just plain ignorant. He describes Dr. Gurlt’s Cube as a “perfectly formed cuboid object,” that scientists declared it artificial, and that we can know nothing about it because it disappeared. Photos of it exist. It is not now nor ever was a perfect cube. The claim comes from Jacques Bergier with an assist from Peter Kolosimo and other myth-mongers of the 1960s and 1970s. The cube is and was almost certainly a piece of meteoric iron—as has been known since it was first analyzed in 1887—though its current whereabouts are unknown.
But this pales next to Swancer’s claim that the famous Greek computer, the Antikythera Mechanism, is utterly alien to ancient culture: “It was amazingly, impossibly advanced for its era, far beyond what was thought possible, and by all rights this thing should not have existed at all, but there it was.” Now, to be fair, Swancer is describing what he believes to be the reaction of historians and archaeologists to the device, but he overstates the case immensely. It has long been known that the ancients had sophisticated clockwork devices. Classical scholars would immediately recall Cicero’s description in De re publica 1.14 of Archimedes’ computer for calculating the position of the planets. The Antikythera Mechanism was a small version of the same type of device. Such accounts demonstrate that the “impossibly” surprised reaction came more from the gradual drifting apart of archaeology from Classical scholarship than from technology that “should not have existed.” Therefore, it is little more than mystery-mongering when Swancer says that because “nothing else remotely like it has been found from that era, the Antikythera Device is quite a perplexing anomaly indeed.” Wood rots and metal corrodes, and very little of even the simpler clockwork devices known to have existed remains.
Two days later, Swancer presented another horrible article, this time on eternal flames and perpetual lamps, a staple of ancient literature. He copies shamelessly from online sources, and he claims that Iamblichus, the Neoplatonic philosopher, claimed that the chambers under the Great Pyramid were illuminated with light bulbs that used mercury. He quotes Iamblichus repeating a story from an unspecified manuscript this way: “We came to a chamber. When we entered, it became automatically illuminated by light from a tube being the height of one man’s hand [approx. 6 inches or 15.24 cm] and thin, standing vertically in the corner. As we approached the tube, it shone brighter… We broke open one of the tubes and it bled beads of silver-colored liquid that ran fastly around the floor until they disappeared between the cracks (mercury?).” The quotation appears in Tony Bushby’s 2004 Nexus magazine article “Lost History of the Pyramids,” an excerpt from his book The Secret in the Bible, and I could not easily trace it back earlier. Bushby provides no source except to claim that it came from a manuscript in a Cairo mosque. His reference list provides only one clue, a citation to Histoire de la Magie, which he identifies as being “based” on Iamblicus. There were several books of that name, which makes it hard to trace back his source in the absence of an author.
The text that Bushby presents seems to be based on the types of material found in Paul Christian (Jean-Baptiste Pitois)’s Histoire de la Magie (1870), which claims to an account of ancient magical rites. It cites Iamblichus, but the text is modern, composed of Rosicrucian material, medieval Arabian legends, and fiction. It’s also in French. Here’s a sample of the kinds of things in the book, which claims that a cult of magician-scholars held secret occult initiation rites using astrology and magic in hidden chambers beneath the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid:
The College of the Magi awaited the future initiate in a crypt dug in the heart of the pyramid. […] At the four corners of the crypt rose, at equal height, four bronze statues placed on triangular columns. The first one was a man, the second a bull, the third a lion, and the last an eagle, all symbolic divisions of the [Great] Sphinx [of Giza] of which I have already spoken. On the head of each figure a container, in the shape of a crown, containing a housed light. Seven lamps with three branches, suspended from the vault, at the angles of a golden rosette with seven rays, completed the illumination. […] A terrible stormy wind, produced by an ingenious but invisible apparatus, then roars in the depths of the Pyramid; the pops of the burning naphtha imitate the flashes of lightning; the seven lamps of the vault suddenly extinguishing, the crypt is lit only by the pale fires which tremble on the Sphinx-figures. (my trans.)
Given how similar this material is, I didn’t quite want to leave it at that. However, I don’t have access to the final piece of the puzzle. Christian, who died in 1877, is alleged to have left behind a manuscript that he falsely attributed to Iamblichus and pretended to have translated into French. (For all I know, it was falsely attributed to him and is a modern fake of a Belle Époque fake based on his earlier work.) This was published in Dutch in 1981 and then in English in 1988 as The Egyptian Mysteries: An Account of an Initiation. The book was in part plagiarized from Woldemar von Uxkull’s Einweihung im alten Ägypten, according to one description of the text, but that is neither here nor there.
Egyptian Mysteries checks all the boxes as the likely source: It’s falsely attributed to Iamblichus, said to be from a lost manuscript, describes an initiation in the bowels of the pyramids, and covers substantively similar material to the Histoire de la Magie. I’d give it 2:1 odds of being the source, even without seeing the book. I turned to Tony Bushby’s The Secret in the Bible, where the same material from the 2004 article also appears. The source still isn’t cited in-text (an oddity in the book, where other sources are clearly marked), but the reference list gives Egyptian Mysteries as one of his sources.
The bottom line is that it would behoove the purveyors of mysteries to do at least some basic vetting of sources before spraying dubious material all over the internet.
10/2/2018 10:04:08 am
Not that anyone is allowed to have an opinion on this other than you, Jason, but you might want to read "Irresistible North," by Andrea di Robilant (Knopf 2011). The author is a Venetian investigative reporter who looked into the validity of the Zeno map and narrative. After a thorough investigation, based on extensive evaluation of Venetian records and documents from the late 14th century, he concluded that the map and narrative were not a hoax. Of course, he's not nearly as knowledgeable about this as you are...
10/2/2018 03:58:34 pm
David, I am of course familiar with di Robilant's slim and unconvincing book. The cover of my edition of Lucas (which I published a few years ago) echoes that of di Robilant's book for obvious reasons. Di Robilant himself admits that much of the Zeno Narrative is an embellishment and plagiarism by the younger Nicolo Zeno, and even if we take Zeno at his word, he "reconstructed" the story from his memory of material he had torn to pieces years earlier. If you would like to accept that there is a think truth beneath the lies, I don't rightly care whether the Zeno Brothers visited the Faroe Islands and heard tell of Greenland in the 1300s. But so much of the material you and your brethren care about is so clearly copied from other sixteenth century books that it amounts to the same thing as a hoax even if the younger Zeno larded it on to a scrap of truth.
10/2/2018 04:23:48 pm
Funny how something so "slim and unconvincing" can find a landing spot at a large publishing house...
10/2/2018 04:47:07 pm
You mean like such compelling and persuasive works as "Chariots of the Gods" and the collected screeds of Ann Coulter? Publishers' interest does not equate to correctness.
10/2/2018 10:29:10 pm
Dave, honey, it's your own ignorance on display here, you aren't actually making any points about veracity. You're just proving that you didn't pay attention in grade school to the lessons on "evaluating your sources."
10/5/2018 12:54:04 pm
Jason, the examples of books you gave are poor ones. One is a subject matter that is "sensationalized" and the other is a celebrity author. Regarding the book in question, the subject is a narrow and obscure one, and the author an unknown. These typos of books are generally published based on the quality of their research, as you well know based on your own experiences.
10/5/2018 02:07:24 pm
Sorry counselor, but your advocacy for the false historical narratives pushed for profit by your buddy Scott Wolter lend you absolutely no credibility here. That and your style of argument which can best be described as non sequitur, of course.
1/27/2019 12:39:40 am
I have recently made the unfortunate discovery that Matt Sibson has been blatantly plagiarizing my work, verbatim, in at least two of his more recent videos. See here:
10/2/2018 10:09:01 am
Correcting Brent Swancer's many mistakes could become a full time job if you're not careful. He clearly just recycles other websites without any thought to original sources, and he once told me that he can't be bothered to distinguish between stories written as fiction and those written as non-fiction. I'm now banned from posting on MU completely. The final straw was when I pointed out that a Swancer article had mis-titled H.G. Wells' The Outline of History as "Outline of World History", because Swancer had copied the mistranslated version of the title right out of Morning of the Magicans, or more likely from a website that did so.
10/2/2018 11:41:19 am
It seems a shame that so much time is wasted on sham history and bogus archeology when there is so many exciting REAL discoveries happening. I am so tired of hearing or reading rehashes about Atlantis ( yawn ), mythological islands, and non-existent, secret passages in the pyramids.
10/2/2018 01:34:02 pm
_when there is so many exciting REAL discoveries happening_
10/2/2018 04:25:24 pm
10/2/2018 10:27:42 pm
Donna, there's literally a monthly magazine about this--check it out:
10/2/2018 04:53:37 pm
One interesting topic is the discovery of black earth graves in Houston, Texas which suggest a 17th century effort by England to colonize Texas. The initial archaeological find was in the late 80s, but additional archival research to confirm the findings has been underway since then. At one point a few years ago there was supposed to be a book coming out about the research, but it doesn't look like it has been published yet.
10/3/2018 11:44:15 am
Hi Doc, Machala -
10/3/2018 01:10:31 pm
There isn't exactly a dearth of published research on the mythology of eastern woodlands Native Americans in general or the Cherokee in particular. I have at best a nodding acquaintance with this literature, so if you could post a link to a photo of a 536' petroglyph that is being ignored it would certainly be of interest to me.
10/3/2018 04:31:24 pm
I'm pretty sure people would absolutely care if those things had actually happened. I can't even find reference to any of them on fringe sites in Google. Perhaps you could post some links so that we could check out these claims, if you have any.
10/3/2018 10:57:23 pm
Chief make 'um heap stuff up. In addition to the 536 foot petroglyph I'm still waiting for him to name a living 7 foot tall Injun. He can't. He's an old bedees riddled idiot.
10/2/2018 08:26:48 pm
The parting of the Red Sea is another historical fallacy. Rationalists are just silly trying to give that a "natural" explanation when evidently it's just another miracle story and nothing else.
10/2/2018 10:05:33 pm
10/3/2018 02:44:09 am
I and I
10/5/2018 02:57:59 am
Hebrew she brew I brew you brew
10/3/2018 06:00:08 am
10/3/2018 09:46:44 am
It looks like you are closer to the creationists than me
10/3/2018 08:23:03 pm
10/3/2018 08:59:00 pm
If the Jesus story is fiction it shows what believers required
10/3/2018 09:26:21 pm
10/3/2018 11:47:18 am
The parting of the Red Sea and the Star of Bethlehem is explainable in rational way. Not miracle, but it was alien misunderstood technology. Just read Mauro Biglino books, when he gave scientific answer to such questions. Of course ancient people couldn't understand advanced technology so they believe these were miracles.
10/3/2018 12:31:15 pm
I don't know which is crazier - the original miracle story or the natural explanation.
An Anonymous Nerd
10/4/2018 07:50:58 pm
It's rare you'll have an actual rationalist who proposes that there was some kind of specific phenomenon behind a Biblical or mythological marvel. In general these stories seem too far removed from anything that might have inspired to be able to reconstruct the source. And nothing requires these stories to be based on anything in particular.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.