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.
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.
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