Alternative theories of the ancient past date back pretty much to Antiquity itself. In the eighteenth century, the rough equivalent of our modern ancient astronaut theory was Arkite worship, the theory first proposed by Jacob Bryant that all ancient mythologies and religions were distortions and perversions of the story of Noah’s Ark and the rest of Genesis. Just as ancient astronaut theorists interpreted (and misinterpreted) every shred of evidence through the lens of aliens, so too did Arkite believers force all of history into the shape of Noah’s Ark. However, in an important difference, Arkite worship was accepted by many scholars as a true interpretation of the ancient past for several decades surrounding 1800.
In the introduction to my translation of The Orphic Argonautica (OA), which I am adapting in this post, I describe one instance in which Bryant perverted a genuine ancient text to force it into his false system. Here are the genuine lines from the opening of the OA in my translation, in which Orpheus describes the formation of the cosmos according to Orphic theology, whereby chaos eventually gives rise to creation:
Here is how Jacob Bryant in his A New System; or, an Analysis of Antient Mythology of 1774-1776 mistranslated the passage to relate it to the Biblical narrative:
Bryant here misrepresents Orpheus’ description of the formation of the cosmos as instead the degradation of the antediluvian earth (Genesis 6:1-13) followed by a clear sky answering to the rainbow of Genesis 9:13 that God used to make his covenant with Noah. This incorrect version of the OA’s theogony was repeated uncritically for most of the nineteenth century by Christian apologists, who sometimes glossed “Eros” explicitly as “rainbow,” to “prove” the historicity of Genesis.
This is no different than the way modern ancient astronaut theorists intentionally distorted the Mahabharata to twist it into the story of prehistoric atomic warfare, as I detail here. Century after century, the same story unfolds: true believers, convinced their theory is more important than the evidence, and the facts get twisted beyond recognition.
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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