I read an interesting article about some bad research published recently in the Journal of Coastal Studies claiming that the ancient Greeks visited North America in the early decades CE, and perhaps as far back as the Bronze Age. It’s a rather textbook example of how cherry picking ancient texts outside of their established context can lead to poor results. I first learned of the claim on Friday in Hakai magazine, but it took me a few days to digest the complex chain of faulty reasoning involved. While the original journal article is locked behind a paywall, the lead researcher posted a copy to Research Gate, so we are fortunate to be able to analyze the actual arguments rather than a media summary of them.
The article in question is titled, somewhat ungrammatically, “Does Astronomical and Geographical Information of Plutarch’s De Facie Describe a Trip Beyond the North Atlantic Ocean?” It was written by Greek archaeometry professor Ioannis Liritzis and a group of colleagues with even less background in the Classics, most of whom are physicists. The article was published on the Journal of Coastal Research’s website in November, ahead of a future print appearance at an unspecified date. To the best of my knowledge, the article only came to public attention this weekend when Hakai, a magazine devoted to coastal waterways, wrote about it.
The foundation for the argument revolves around a single sentence in Plutarch’s De Facie, his essay on the moon. The essay, as it currently exists, is missing its opening passage. It purports to be a dialogue between some real-life people known to Plutarch during his time spent in Rome in 70s CE. The sentence comes amidst a comparison of solar and lunar eclipses and concerns an eclipse that the assembled guests were said to have witnessed: “You will if you call to mind this conjunction recently which, beginning just after noonday, made many stars shine out from my parts of the sky and tempered the air in the manner of twilight” (De facie 19.1; trans. Harold Cherniss).
Now, you may not think that the sentence implies a trip to Canada, but you are not an archaeometry expert, or a physicist. They can see things that ordinary plain readings of the text cannot.
Scholars have long suggested that the eclipse Plutarch alludes to refers to one of three total solar eclipses during Plutarch’s lifetime, in 71, 75, or 83 CE. Various learned arguments have been put forward for which characters in the dialogue, and the author, might have been in position to see each of these eclipses. Most of the arguments are quite strained and rely upon inferences drawn from uncertain allusions later in the text; the Loeb translator of Plutarch, Harold Cherniss, called the whole exercise “perverse,” just to give you a flavor of the quality of the discourse, and little progress has been made since the controversy received its first and fullest airing in the early 1900s. Liritzis et al. prefer 75 CE, and they take it for a given that Plutarch was describing a real meeting of his friends in the years that followed—a conclusion that is by no means certain, given the rather loose rules for the dialogue genre in Plutarch’s day.
Here is where things start to break down: After this reference to the eclipse in section 19.1, Plutarch’s characters proceed to discuss the moon, the sun, and astronomical issues for several thousand words, until we come to section 26, where Sulla Sextius breaks into the discussion with an anecdote. The context here is important. In section 25, Plutarch’s brother Lamprias is discussing the possibility of life on the moon, and remarks that if Moon men were to read Homer’s cosmology, they’d think that the moon was the true Earth and the Earth is really Hades, with the heavens far above both. In other words, the argument is that what is good and normal is relative to the observer’s biases and familiarity.
At this point, Sulla interrupts Lamprias. The passage is long, but important, so I will quote most of section 26 at greater length than usual. Sulla (transliterated below as “Sylla”) describes a bit of myth about the “opposite continent” of Greco-Roman lore, referring to a story told him by a stranger he met in Carthage. The text must be somewhat corrupt, for the stranger is not mentioned until halfway through, creating a bit of confusion for the reader:
I had scarcely finished speaking when Sylla broke in; “Stop Lamprias, and shut the door on your oratory, lest you run my myth aground before you know it, and make confusion of my drama, which requires another stage and a different setting. Now, I am only its actor, but I will first, if you see no objection, name the poet, beginning in Homer's words: — ‘Far o’er the brine an isle Ogygian lies,’ (Od., vii, 244.) distant from Britain five days sail to the West. There are three other islands equidistant from Ogygia and from one another, in the general direction of the sun’s summer setting. The natives have a story that in one of these Cronus has been confined by Zeus, but that he, having a son for gaoler, is left sovereign lord of those islands and of the sea, which they call the Gulf of Cronus. To the great continent by which the ocean is fringed is a voyage of about five thousand stades, made in row-boats, from Ogygia, of less from the other islands, the sea being slow of passage and full of mud because of the number of streams which the great mainland discharges, forming alluvial tracts and making the sea heavy like land, whence an opinion prevailed that it is actually frozen. The coasts of the mainland are inhabited by Greeks living around a bay as large as the Maeotic, with its mouth nearly opposite that of the Caspian Sea. These Greeks speak of themselves as continental, and of those who inhabit our land as islanders, because it is washed all round by the sea. They think that in after time those who came with Hercules and were left behind by him, mingled with the subjects of Cronus, and rekindled, so to speak, the Hellenic life which was becoming extinguished and overborne by barbarian languages, laws, and ways of life, and so it again became strong and vigorous. Thus the first honours are paid to Hercules, the second to Cronus. When the star of Cronus, called by us the Shining One, by them, as he told us, the Night Watcher, has reached Taurus again after an interval of thirty years, having for a long time before made preparation for the sacrifice and the voyage, they send forth men chosen by lot in as many ships as are required, putting on board all the supplies and stuff necessary for the great rowing voyage before them, and for a long sojourn in a strange land. They put out, and naturally do not all fare alike; but those who come safely out of the perils of the sea land first on the outlying islands, which are inhabited by Greeks, and day after day, for thirty days, see the sun hidden for less than one hour. This is the night, with a darkness which is slight and of a twilight hue, and has a light over it from the West. There they spend ninety days, meeting with honourable and kindly treatment, and being addressed as holy persons, after which they pass on, now with help from the winds. There are no inhabitants except themselves, and those who have been sent before them. For those who have joined in the service of the God for thirty years are allowed to sail back home, but most prefer to settle just in the place where they are, some because they have grown used to it, some because all things are there in plenty without pain or trouble, while their life is passed in sacrifices and festivals, or given to literature or philosophy. For the natural beauty of the isle is wonderful and the mildness of the environing air. Some are actually prevented by the god when they are of a mind to sail away, manifesting himself to them as to familiars and friends not in dreams only or by signs, for many meet with shapes and voices of spirits, openly seen and heard. Cronus himself sleeps within a deep cave resting on rock which looks like gold, this sleep being devised for him by Zeus in place of chains. Birds fly in at the topmost part of the rock, and bear him ambrosia, and the whole island is pervaded by the fragrance shed from the rock as out of a well. The Spirits of whom we hear serve and care for Cronus, having been his comrades in the time when he was really king over gods and men. Many are the utterances which they give forth of their own prophetic power, but the greatest and those about the greatest issues they announce when they return as dreams of Cronus; for the things which Zeus premeditates, Cronus dreams, when sleep has stayed the Titanic motions and stirrings of the soul within him, and that which is royal and divine alone remains, pure and unalloyed. (trans. A. O. Prickard)
Our current authors see this passage as inherently inseparable from the astronomy of the eclipse, and they take this thirdhand story of a distant land as a distorted account of Canada. The authors state that they simply assume this to be true based on the earlier geographical writings of Iliad D. Mariolakos, a Greek geographer who identified Ogygia with Iceland based on the idea that if Ogygia is five days’ sail from Britain, and ships sailed 5 miles per hour, it must be 480 miles away, roughly the distance to Iceland. This assumption is problematic because the direction of the prevailing winds to mythic Ogygia is unknown, and this can change the speed of a ship by a factor of five. Also, Iceland is almost 800 miles from Scotland. I will assume, however, that Mariolakos is referring to nautical miles, in which case the numbers are closer to correct.
Mariolakos has adopted wholesale a claim first made in the late 1800s by the German scholar Wilhelm von Christ, the same scholar who identified Atlantis with the Sea Peoples. Mariolakos adds little that von Christ had not pioneered, though with no acknowledgement of von Christ’s priority, or of him at all.
The trouble with this is that Plutarch made mention of the Ogygia legend more than once, and not consistently. While Euhemerus and Callimachus placed Ogygia in Malta, and Aeschylus thought it was Egypt, In De Defectu Oraculorum 18, Plutarch writes that the island was “lying near Britain,” and I don’t think that 800 miles would be described as “near” unless we allow so wide a latitude in accuracy as to render the point of taking Plutarch literally moot. Both claims can’t be correct unless, as is most likely, the description is literary rather than scientific, or against the prevailing winds. Plutarch even says in De Facie that the trip is against the wind (or, rather, the return voyage is with the wind), which means it would be much closer than 480 nautical miles. Earlier scholars considered these islands to be the Scilly Isles off the Cornish coast. Whatever they were, if they had a real foundation, they were close enough to have regular visits from Britain, should we accept Plutarch in De Defectu at his word.
Mariolakos is a bit of a fringe believer who holds that the Minoans had colonized North America. Mariolakos dismisses academic views on Greek mythology with the claim that scholars believe mythology to be entirely imaginary (pace Martin Nilsson) and believes that Greek mythology encodes secret geological knowledge unique to North America, specifically that mythological references to the “opposite continent” on the other side of the River Ocean must be the Americas. (Johannes Kepler was the first to make this claim, many centuries ago.) All of this is based on identifying Ogygia with Iceland, and thus the other geographic features—most of which seem to be imaginary—with Baffin Island, Greenland, etc. Clearly, he’s a great source to base your whole theory on without bothering to provide evidence for why we should accept it. The authors also say that they used a 1983 article by Paul Coones, though it is not directly relevant to the issue at hand, being a discussion of natural theology.
Having explored the foundations of the argument, we can now look at what Liritzis et al. did to try to prove Mariolakos (and thus, actually, von Christ) correct. It involves math. Basically, using astronomical references in the text, they compared solar eclipses with Saturn’s entry into Taurus and tried to jury-rig a coincidence. They compared this dating to records for when Saturn entered Taurus, as Plutarch wrote, to eclipses. Saturn entered Taurus in 26 CE, 56 CE, and 85 CE, staying about 2 years each time. Thus, since only one timeframe would allow the stranger to have come to Greece in time for Sulla to have met him, he must have traveled to the great continent in 26 CE and returned once Saturn left Taurus in 58 CE, taking about a year to reach his home in Greece, followed by several years’ stay at Carthage, putting him there around 65 CE, where he remained for what the authors estimate as 5 to 8 years, based on Plutarch’s description of his stay as being “too long.” This is a bit of special pleading to reach the “correct” year, close enough to 75 to match their preferred eclipse date. It also proves absolutely nothing because to declare a fictional account genuine on the basis of math is to deny that Plutarch was able to perform basic math to make the story work.
At the root level, the argument is founded on the uncritical acceptance of Mariolakos’s speculative identification of Ogygia with Iceland. If we do not accept this, then the argument fails.
The influence of Mariolakos is evident in an otherwise puzzling passage in which Liritzis et al. quote the section of Plutarch describing the continent’s bay as being no smaller than that of Lake Maeotis, or the Sea of Azov, and then proceed to explain that it has to refer to the Gulf of St. Lawrence because they are on the same latitude. This otherwise nonsensical conclusion came about because Mariolakos prefers to translate the section as meaning that the continent’s bay is no lower in latitude rather than smaller in size. Our authors forgot to explain that in adopting Mariolakos’s analysis wholesale. Similarly, they show off their lack of Classical knowledge when they wrongly cite the Orphic Argonautica, composed in the 400s or 500s CE, as the “oldest” account of the lands of Cronus, because they mistakenly have adopted a pre-Victorian view that the text is pre-Homeric.
As the article drags on, Liritzis et al. try to squeeze more blood from the stone by taking Plutarch’s words more literally than Plutarch did. They puzzle as to why the stranger from Cronus’s continent would call Europe “the Great Island,” and they speculate that this means that the stranger came from Sicily, Crete, or some such island. But Plutarch was almost certainly being literary; the stranger, while technically an expatriate Greek, is representing the Great Continent and therefore comparing its size to Europe by calling Europe nothing more than a large island. It’s a literary inversion meant to contrast. Liritzis et al. are literal in a way that only physicists with no sense of the poetic can be.
Given all of this, it is rather pointless to review the elaborate hypotheticals they propose to explain the exact routes that the Greeks would have taken to and from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, given that they are more or less trying to shoehorn Plutarch’s rather brief and loose discussion into a scientifically plausible water route, taking the better part of a year, from Crete to Norway and on to Canada. Not a trace of Greek habitation can be found along the northern reaches of that route, and I wouldn’t bet on finding any. This is a solution in search of a problem.
The authors explain their analysis with the following ungrammatical gobbledygook:
Based on the working hypotheses, the assumptions are elaborated against a speculative attribution. Taking on literature and historical account and applying scientific tools encourages the possible ‘‘speculation’’ to be interpreted. Obviously, the plausibility must be grounded to scientific facts; albeit tangible evidence is missing, at any rate the supportive arguments derive from an interdisciplinary approach. Archaeoastronomy is scientific, but oceanography, spherical geometry, and astronomy are also scientific and support the narration. Albeit coincidental and too good to be true, it still provides a scientific, but not mainly speculative, vehicle to unfold and decipher some ancient literature.
The authors tried to reduce myth and legend to historical fact, and to do so they stretch credulity, especially when they try to argue that the Minoans weren’t just the first Mediterranean sailors to explore Norway but that their DNA bears evidence of Northern European descent! This is a reference to 2013 findings that Minoan DNA shares affinities with Western and Northern Europeans. The conclusion was that the Minoans came to Crete from mainland Europe as far back as Neolithic times, and their cousins spread out across Europe and Scandinavia. This implies nothing about continued contact in the Bronze Age.
So what did Plutarch really mean by the anecdote of the distant cult of Cronus? Well, formally it is little different than other Greek tales of distant cults of various gods. Diodorus Siculus tells one about a mysterious island just south of the North Pole where a cult of Apollo serves in a strange round temple (Library 3.13). He also gives Euhemerus’ (fictional) account of the pillars of the gods on far-off Panchaea. There are obvious parallels, too, with Plato’s account of Atlantis, which would seem to be the model for the story of the island and its attendant continent. The connection to Carthage suggests, too, that the story was modeled on Pseudo-Aristotle, De mirabilibis auscultationibus 84 and Diodorus 5.19-20, in which we hear of a massive and wealthy island out in the Atlantic colonized by Phoenicians, who were also the ancestors of the Carthaginians.
The point is that the story is part of an established genre of tales of magic islands across the ocean. The best that our authors have done is to demonstrate that Plutarch did some calculations to make the distances to his islands seem plausible to his readers.
The opposite continent is a well-worn trope of Greek geographical speculation. It can be found as early as Homer, who wrote of the land on the far shore of the River Ocean, where Odysseus sailed to enter the realm of the dead. He similarly placed the Cimmerians across the Ocean because they were also associated with the dead. This doesn’t originate in knowledge of North America but in the old conception of the world, before Eratosthenes proved it round, which held that the three continents—Europe, Asia, and Africa—were surrounded by a massive river, Okeanos (Ocean), which in turn was ringed with lands associated with monster, the gods, and the dead. This mythic ring of land keeping the ocean from spilling down into the underworld survived the discovery that the Earth was round by becoming a continent across the ocean. Sometimes it became the Antipodes, the great southern continent that “balanced” the three in the north, as Pomponius Mela asserted. Sometimes it became a vast western continent beyond the setting sun, in which form it shows up in Plato’s Atlantis tales as the continental power base of Atlantis. It derives, ultimately, from ancient Near Eastern mythology, in which the Sun was said to have lands at the farthest edges of the Earth, through whose gates he rose and set. (Cf. Hesiod, Theogony 736-744.) It’s entirely mythological, and it requires no knowledge of the Americas to explain.
The myth at the heart of Plutarch’s tale, about the god Cronus asleep and surrounded by supernatural attendants appears to be an early version of the Sleeping King myth known from various later forms in Indo-European myth and folklore. Arthur, Charlemagne, and Frederick Barbarossa all famously shared this story. Given the location of the story, and the fact that in De defectu Plutarch says that the story was told by a man who had traveled to Britain and heard it from the Celts living there, as well as the parallels to Germanic lore and the presence of Briareus, who was associated with the Pillars of Heracles and the Celtic world beyond them, I am inclined to believe that the story as we have it is a Celtic myth, run through the interpretatio graeca by ethnocentric Greeks. This is not essential to understand what our authors argue, but it adds coloring to our understanding of the story. What it is not is evidence of Greeks in Canada, for which there is both no physical evidence and nothing in the literary account that would reflect actual knowledge of Canadian geography.
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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