The author of the month for June over at Graham Hancock’s website is artist Michael MacRae, who is promoting his 2014 book Sun Boat: The Odyssey Deciphered, which claims that Homer’s Odyssey is a coded discussion of a circumnavigation of the earth. This claim puts MacRae a bit beyond Henrietta Mertz, who merely claimed it told of a transatlantic voyage, but in good company with some nineteenth century theorists who thought that Jason and the Argonauts had sailed around the world to the extremities of the Arctic and to Peru. Anyway, MacRae’s claim is prima facie false to anyone who knows anything about the composition of the Odyssey, but we’ll take a look at his claims anyway.
MacRae starts his article out poorly by claiming that he is following in the footsteps of Heinrich Schliemann, whom he claims used the Iliad to find Troy, Mycenae, and Knossos. Schliemann actually devised the Iliad story after the fact to cover up the fact that the location of Troy—known to the Greeks and Romans and suspected a century before his time—had been uncovered by accident by someone else. The site of Mycenae had never been lost, and Knossos was first excavated in the 1870s by Minos Kalokairinos. Schliemann visited the site but did not excavate, and Arthur Evans was the one to identify it with the Knossos of Greek myth.
However, it is the widespread recognition that there is a Mycenaean-era origin to Greek mythology that argues against MacRae’s imagined thesis, for the traceable elements of Greek myth correspond to population centers from the Bronze Age, as Martin Nilsson showed eight decades ago. This leaves little room to move mythic locations around the world while still claiming the mantle of Schliemann. Despite this, MacRae claims that a boatload of Mycenaean Greeks sailed from Troy to the Red Sea, and from there to India and China. They then crossed the Pacific to Mexico before circumnavigating South America and crossing the Atlantic to return to Europe.
MacRae, though, isn’t content just to claim that the Odyssey betrays knowledge of other lands; he wants to make Odysseus into Quetzalcoatl! “I am proposing that Odysseus might well be the mysterious, bearded ‘Caucasian teacher’ who is omnipresent in both early Mesoamerican and South American legends.” It is probably worth restating that there is no “Caucasian” teacher in Mesoamerican or South American legends except, so far as scholarship can tell, where Catholic missionaries and Spanish conquistadors inserted white skin as part of a propaganda effort to identify indigenous gods with Catholic saints, as when Tunupa was identified with St. Thomas. At any rate, a legend current in the 1500s CE is hardly proof of anything from 1160 BCE. Witness, for example, the fact that the Classical Greek myth of the princess Andromeda being menaced by a sea serpent had degenerated into the story of a giant male Nephilim being chained and tortured by the time Sir John Mandeville reported what he knew of Andromeda in the 1300s CE. That corruption took 700 fewer years than MacRae proposes Native Americans retained a perfect knowledge of the very appearance of Odysseus.
The evidence MacRae provides is thin enough to be nonexistent. He claims, for example, that Odysseus must have visited Sri Lanka because the old name of that island is Heladiva, which sounds like the Hellenes, or Greeks. Sadly, in the Mycenaean era the Greeks were the Homeric Achaeans, probably the same as the Ahhiyawa mentioned by the Hittites and the Ekwesh of the Egyptians. Homer does mention the Hellenes and Panhellenes once each, but probably in a later interpolation. The Hellenes of his era were one group of Greeks, and they didn’t include the Ithacans, Odysseus’ people. At any rate, the name Heladiva can’t be shown to go back as far as the Mycenaean era, though its exact origin is unknown.
The rest of his evidence is even shallower, resting on a willful misreading of the Odyssey’s westward progress as an eastward voyage. Homer (I use the conventional attribution here) specifically sent Odysseus west to contrast with the great epic whose episodes he ransacked and reconstructed for his own: The Argonautica, which was the great eastward adventure. Thus, moving eastward, MacRae equates the Cyclopes with Raja Bersiong (“the fanged king”), a Malaysian cannibal king (but not a Cyclops), best known from a 1968 movie, but first appearing in the Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, an eighteenth century Malay history. It probably derives from the story of the cannibal demon king Kalmasapada, known from the medieval Javanese poem Kakawin Sutasoma. At any rate, the story cannot be shown to go back to the Mycenaean era. MacRae then identifies the wind-god Aeolus with Chinese Emperor Zu Jia on the grounds that Aeolus held four winds and Zu Jia ruled over four territories.
He next identifies that Laestrygonians with the Polynesians because Polynesians were cannibals and have “enormous, rotund bodies” that answer to the gigantic Laestrygonians. He also cites a paper by diffusionist James L Guthrie (with no citation that I can find anywhere—all of his work appears to be only in fringe magazines) that claims Polynesians, Mexicans, and Greeks share a common antigen, whatever that is supposed to mean.
Following this, he claims that Circe’s Aeaea was in Central America. This doesn’t make a lot of sense since Homer’s Aeaea appears to be a purposeful reconstruction of the older Aea of the Argonautica, the dawn land (named for the Near Eastern dawn goddess Aya) where the sun rested at night. Homer’s Aeaea (a name that doubles Aea) is meant to parallel the original, but since the original was known as a land of the farthest East, Homer’s Aea is the West. Tellingly, Archaic Greek poets had trouble justifying this literary change and sometimes assigned Circe to Aea or Aeaea to the Black Sea. Based on this, he then speculates about how the Olmec worshiped white people as living gods because white people are awesome. He uses that standard fringe history claims about white gods of myth and “Caucasian” people in Olmec art. He also relies on the utterly unreliable Robert Graves (a favorite of Sirius Mystery author Robert Temple, despite his penchant for making up facts) to claim that the Aztec god Tlaloc was really Dionysus. He cites Spanish attempt to speak to the Mayans in Greek as evidence that Mayan has Greek influence.
MacRae calls Argentine diffusionist Dick Edgar Ibarra Grasso an archaeologist and uses him to support the notion that a carving found at Cerro Sechin in Peru depicts a Mycenaean ship. The carving, shown only in a badly reproduced drawing, looks like a stylized jawbone in the style of other “mutilated body” imagery from the site, or perhaps a stylized border. Without knowing anything about the picture, it’s impossible even to say if it is actually from its claimed location. He also asserts that the Greek Gorgon looks like the jaguar god of Chavin de Huantar (Gee, I wonder where he got that from... could it be Enrico Mattievitch?) and that Viracocha’s solar crown looks like a nineteenth century speculative reconstruction of a Spartan helmet from 400 years after Homer and 700 years after Odysseus. But it gets insulting to the Peruvians when MacRae claims that the Greeks viewed them as occupants of the underworld (again borrowing from earlier fringe writers’ work) and that the Gorgon’s head vaguely alluded to in Odyssey 9 is actually a reference to Ecuadorian Natives’ head shrinking practices and thus Odysseus’ fear of having his head shrunk!
Following F. A. Paley’s claim in “Pre-Homeric Legends of the Voyage of the Argonauts” in 1879, MacRae identifies the Wandering Rocks as icebergs and thus takes Odysseus to Antarctica. Unlikely Paley, MacRae doesn’t imagine that the story traces back to the Argonauts but is firm set on holding to the literal truth of the Odyssey. To that end, he identifies the sun’s kingdom with Brazil on the basis of alleged Greek petroglyphs found in that country, which even if they were real (and they’re not) wouldn’t imply anything about the Mycenaean era, since the Mycenaeans didn’t use the Greek alphabet but rather Linear B.
The farther around the world MacRae goes, the dumber his claims get. Understanding that the Taino believe the souls of the dead take the form of bats, he asks: “During his shipwreck ordeal, Odysseus described himself as clinging ‘like a bat’ to a symbolic fig tree (axis mundi?). Could this particular analogy have arisen from his experiences among the Taino?” In Odyssey 12, Odysseus clings “like a bat” to a fig tree growing over Charybdis to save himself from the whirlpool below, which is clearly meant to suggest how tightly he grabbed on, not that he was in the lands of the Taino!
It keeps going, but I just don’t care. MacRae has thrown together a kitchen-sink hodgepodge of fringe claims, deriving from sources like Henrietta Mertz and Hamlet’s Mill, but approaches his subject with the touching naiveté of a teenager doing a book report, apparently unaware of the centuries of Homeric scholarship that refutes each of his points. To take but the most important: The Odyssey, as we have it, is not a unified narrative report of a discrete event but rather a woven together compilation of material from earlier sources, including traditional poems, folk tales, Near Eastern epics, and, more than any other, the oral version of the Argonautica that preceded it. Scholars like Johann W. A. Kirchoff, F. A. Paley, Karl Meuli, M. L. West, and others have made substantive and important case that the Odyssey is a patchwork made up of material from the Argonautica, which in turn might even borrow from the Epic of Gilgamesh. At each stage of the poem’s development, the tale of Odysseus attracted new adventures, often with little regard for geographic precision or internal coherence (for example, in his trip to Hades Odysseus is simultaneously at the gates of the Underworld and wandering within it). By failing to grapple with the composition and development of the Odyssey in any significant way—especially its reliance on a pre-existing Argonautica—MacRae renders his entire thesis so much hot air from someone who knows not of which he speaks.
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, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, 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.