Last week I reviewed PBS’s “Carthage’s Lost Warriors,” an episode of Secrets of the Dead produced by the German company ZDF. The program profiled the hypothesis of Dr. Hans Griffhorn, who claims that a boatload of Carthaginians and Celts traveled to South America where they influenced native cultures and became the Chachapoya. Both Dr. Griffhorn and another participant on the show, archaeologist Dr. Warren Church, commented on my review and were not happy about, for the same reason.
In the comments on that review, I noted that the program’s hypothesis bore a similarity to the mythic version of the post-WWII flight of leading Nazis to South America, and while this comment was perhaps not the most artful I’ve made, I was taken aback by outrage of both Griffhorn and Church, apparently because I was thinking in terms of mythic structure whereas they saw the word Nazi and presumed that this was a reductio ad Hitlerum by which my argument is automatically invalidated by dint of Hitler and they therefore win the internet.
Griffhorn had the following to say:
Since I am a German scientist and grew up and was educated in Western Germany after the war (I was two years old when the war was over), I know what happened in the Third Reich better than most foreigners and younger people. And that is exactly one of the reasons why I hated two things all my life – any kind of irrationalism and dogmatism, and any kind of racism. And if one would call me a racist or a nazi in Germany, I would bring him to court for calumny. If slender and defamation is the “Sceptics” way of defending paradigms: poor science.
Note that my review said nothing about Nazis, and it was an offhand comment in the comments section. I explained my thinking to Griffhorn, who agreed that the PBS documentary presented his views in a way that could be read as Eurocentric.
Church, on the other hand, agreed that the PBS documentary offered a travesty of archaeology as well as both his and Griffhorn’s views (Church does not believe in diffusion from Europe in Antiquity); nevertheless, he was much more upset than Dr. Griffhorn at me and those who participated in the comments thread:
Dr. Giffhorn is not a neo-Nazi or a racist. In his book he denounces Nazism and expresses some concern that his ideas will be interpreted as somehow politically biased. Slandering him as a racist is cheap and unbecoming anyone who really wishes to discuss an issue. […] Your comment about Nazis fleeing to Argentina shows where your mind goes with similar diffusionist theories. You brought the Nazis into the conversation while others did not.... presumably because Dr. Giffhorn is German. You made that remark, not PBS. It was not provoked by anything than your decision to span the centuries to link nationalists fleeing across the Atlantic. No, his narrative of Carthage is not historically linked to the Third Reich or even analogous except that they presumably crossed the same ocean. All diffusionist narratives, and they come from every nation on earth, are based on an inadequate understanding of (in this case) pre-Columbian Native American cultures and their achievements. You can call it racism if you want and say it is akin to a Nazi flight to South America. It's your blog and you are blogger. I don't find the comparison enlightening though it may help you feel that have moral or intellectual high-ground. How or why you chose to compare a real historical event and an alternative (In my opinion unfounded) archaeological narrative I don't know, but this has been a vapid discussion that failed to hit the mark.
I am struggling to find a polite way to express my feelings about Dr. Church’s aggressive statements, but as I pointed to Dr. Church, if Dr. Griffhorn himself recognized the similarity of his ideas to those associated with racism (as Church notes), then it is hardly my imposition of a racial narrative onto the PBS documentary—especially one that took great pains to discuss skin color as “proof” of ethnicity.
Now I will admit that the German connection to the show is what made me think of the Nazi flight to South America—but there are two key differences between what I was thinking and what Dr. Church assumes I was thinking. First, it was not the fact that Dr. Griffhorn is German but that the program was produced in Germany by a German production company; that connection, however, is superficial. In terms of the Nazis, I was not thinking of the historical fact that some Nazis emigrated to Argentina but rather the myth that grew up around that fact—the myth that the Nazi leadership slipped out of Europe at the close of the war and set up a secret Nazi mini-state somewhere in South America from which they would plot their return to power. A variation on this theme is the later claim that the Nazis escaped to Antarctica for the same reason. Presumably, if I had said “Antarctica” instead of South America no one would have batted an eyelash because that version was more obviously outlandish.
Here I would like to challenge Dr. Church’s claim that diffusionist ideas are not historically connected by showing explicitly the specific structural similarities I saw—as well as the apparent origin of them in a particular diffiusionist idea. I wanted to do this as a chart, but the limits of the blogging platform preclude this, so we’ll have to make due with a bulleted list.
Behold the underlying structure of the myth I was, however awkwardly, alluding to:
IGNATIUS DONNELLY’S ATLANTIS
JACQUES DE MAHIEU (ESOTERIC NAZI) ON VIKINGS
MIGUEL SERRANO (ANCIENT ASTRONAUT THEORIST) ON HYPERBOREANS
MIGUEL SERRANO ON THE TEMPLARS
NAZIS IN SOUTH AMERICA
GRAHAM HANCOCK’S LOST CIVILIZATION
SCOTT WOLTER’S KNIGHTS TEMPLAR
HANS GRIFFHORN’S HYPOTHESIS
Despite the superficially diverse hypotheses represented above—covering everything from Knights Templar to Atlanteans to space aliens to Nazis—the underlying structure of the myth is remarkably stable despite its diversity of forms and occasional departures in specific versions. If it is not too ironic, I might label this the Platonic ideal of the myth:
This is not a new myth, though its current form is most obvious in Donnelly’s Atlantis (where he introduces the motif of white skin). Readers with a Classical education will recognize this at once as the foundational myth of Rome itself, as told by Vergil in the Aeneid:
The rationalizing account of Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda performs the same Trojan trick for the Norse, substituting a human Odin for Aeneas, and Scandinavia for Latium.
At its core, this story is a translation myth, explaining how it is that a current people can be connected to a geographically remote great civilization. The defining feature of this myth, however, is the catastrophic destruction of the old civilization (something seen in the story of Superman, too), which explains how it is that the current living people can claim to be the proper successors of the older tradition, without competition from the parent civilization. Many versions of the King Arthur myth use this same idea, placing Arthur as the inheritor of Roman power and glory as that civilization collapses, transferring the prestige of the Empire to England. The ancients performed this as a ritual—they would destroy temples and carry off the cult statues to symbolically translate the power of the god from a defeated enemy to the victor’s city. Early claims for America, specifically that Native Americans were the Lost Tribes, also play on this same theme, offering a way of translating Old World glories to the New and thus justifying European (and later Euro-American) domination of the continent.
Many of the modern proponents of such theories probably have no idea that they are proposing something so closely aligned to ancient myths. But it can’t be a coincidence that this ancient structure, of which Donnelly was at least partially aware in constructing his own views, persists in fringe theories.
At the grossest level, though, this entire story is a recapitulation of the Near Eastern Flood myth and that of the Watchers, which is why it shows up first with Donnelly and Atlantis, since Donnelly considered the two the same, and Plato seems to have drawn on the Greek version of the Flood myth in writing his Atlantis dialogues:
So, we can say that this is a bit of a theme in the Western mythic tradition.
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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