The other day on Facebook, alternative historian Graham Hancock reported that he has become a regular user of hallucinogenic drugs, with which he communes with spirit beings from another realm. Hancock cautioned that he can provide no evidence that these entities have a reality outside his imagination, but he has more or less made clear that he believes that he is in actual contact with goddesses and demons. In his latest drug-induced vision, he experienced a “psychic” attack from an entity that he was unable to stop by “projecting love” at it.
I tried projecting love at it. It wouldn’t work. The sense of threat and danger continued to mount. I tried to invoke Mother Ayahuasca in her manifestation as the Blue Angel. This did no good at all. I tried to raise a barrier of light. Failure again. Finally my out-of-body self just curled up into a ball while I was pummeled and beaten and humbled on that etheric plane.
Note that Hancock is employing the terminology of the first ancient astronaut religion, Theosophy, in ascribing the angels and demons to the “etheric plane.”
It would be easy to make fun of Hancock, but the truth is that no one who has not had spirit visions in altered states of consciousness (whether brought on by drugs, meditation, or vivid dreams) can truly appreciate the sense of the timeless and the uncanny that they produce.
My concern is less for Hancock’s drug habit than for what it reveals about the alternative history project. As alternative historians might phrase it: Is it really a coincidence that all of the major threads of alternative history have moved in the direction of alternative spirituality?
Graham Hancock burst onto the alternative history scene with The Sign and the Seal (1992), a book that went in search of the Ark of the Covenant and suggested that the Biblical box was a piece of technology from a lost civilization. He followed this with Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), which sought concrete evidence of a lost civilization in ruins of ancient cultures and the makeup of their myths. In 1998, he even tried to find ancient astronauts on Mars in The Mars Mystery. But that same year in Heaven’s Mirror his more spiritual side began to emerge. He was more interested in the meaning behind the myths than proof that the lost civilization had a real location or history; he cared what they believed and what it could teach us about eternal life.
In 2005, he made his last attempt at finding the lost civilization in Underworld, but when science debunked and disproved nearly all of his hypotheses about a lost empire (not least of which is the impossibility of human settlement in Ice Age Antarctica) he turned inward. By the time of Supernatural (2009), he had all but admitted that he no longer thought of his lost civilization as a real place buried in some forgotten corner of the world; rather, he saw myths and legends and their advanced knowledge as originating in the spirit realm, where the gods communed with humans. He gained this knowledge, he said, through his use of ayahuasca, the South American hallucinogen, as well as regular and heavy use of marijuana.
Hancock recognized that there is a scientific explanation for this, one I’ve mentioned many times. According to David Lewis-Williams, cited by Hancock as well as me, the human brain evolved to display certain shapes and figures when in altered states of consciousness. These the brain interprets through the prism of culture, giving rise to similar but distinct cultural myth-patterns and imagery, including, for example, spirals, serpents, hybrid beast-creatures, etc. However, Hancock came down cautiously on the side of assuming that these images came not from a quirk of evolution but rather from real access to a different dimension populated by advanced creatures who are indistinguishable from pagan gods.
Notice that this is almost identical to the most recent versions of the ancient astronaut hypothesis, as put forward on Ancient Aliens, which claims that the “aliens” are not the inhabitants of other planets in our universe but rather immortal mystical travelers from another dimension who intervene in ours and use their omniscient command of physics to exercise godly powers. They are indistinguishable from pagan gods.
Even the more nuts-and-bolts approach to alternative history, as promoted by America Unearthed, has followed this trend, spending a great deal of time wondering in awe at abstract concepts like the Mysteries of Mithras and spirit-matter duality, often at the expense of looking for physical evidence to support diffusionist claims.
So what’s behind the turn to what is essentially Theosophy?
I can think of a few possibilities:
I’m not sure I know what the right answer is, but I’d think that different speculators have different reasons, some of which they may not even be aware of. For whatever reason, though, those who consume this material seem interested in a neo-pagan religion. And if alternative history becomes a religion, there isn’t any way to speak truth to power, since its claims will have moved beyond fact into the realm of faith.
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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