Earlier this week former Treasure Force Commander and current History Heretic J. Hutton Pulitzer delivered a two-hour-long Periscope presentation in which he discussed his latest speculations about Oak Island. In so doing, he made an extraordinary and quite ridiculous claim, namely that he has located the underwater tomb of a famous figure from Antiquity, possibly that of Hercules himself!
Pulitzer promised to post his Periscope presentation to YouTube with additional maps and superimposed graphics, but since he has so many different social media accounts and no central listing of what he is posting when or where, I have no idea whether it is up.
Anyway, during the presentation Pulitzer described his belief that there is a secret underground tomb beneath Oak Island and that evidence for it is now underwater due to rising sea levels around Nova Scotia. Without offering any evidence, Pulitzer said that there are four possibilities for who is buried in the tomb. He then proceeded to give three possibilities and, so far as I could tell amidst his rambling discussion, did not mention the fourth. The possibilities are that this the:
Let’s take these three people from the top.
Hanno the Carthaginian was indeed a sailor, and he made an epic voyage that took him beyond the Pillars of Hercules and down the West African coast, perhaps as far as Gabon. There, he encountered furry wild people who threw stones at them and bit and clawed. They were probably chimpanzees or gorillas; in fact the modern gorilla takes its name from Hanno’s identification of the people as the tribe of Gorillae (Γόριλλαι). Hanno’s fleet ran out of provisions and returned to Carthage, where one of Hanno’s commanders described the encounter in a famous Periplus erected in memory of the expedition in the Temple of Ba’al Hammon (Kronos) in Carthage. True, Hanno’s fate is not given on the Periplus, but neither does it suggest that he did anything other than either return to Carthage with the rest of his fleet or die en route.
The surviving text is a medieval Byzantine abridgement, but later authors offer some important details. Arrian, in his Anabasis of Alexander 8, says that the return journey was plagued by hardship and disaster, which, along with the fact that the Periplus was in the words of a lieutenant, suggests that Hanno himself fell victim to these calamities on his return. Pliny (Natural History 5.8), however, claims that Hanno circumnavigated Africa, though this seems to contradict the surviving Periplus.
However you cut it, Hanno did not “disappear” as Pulitzer claimed. Instead, his fleet returned to describe his journey in the famous Periplus.
Herodotus offers some additional details about West African trade in Histories 4.196, that some believe were part of the original Periplus. He describes a custom whereby the Carthaginians established trade relations with West Africans, who would leave gold on the beach in exchange for trade goods from Carthage. This is particularly interesting because according to the Akhbar al-zaman 1.6 (derived, according to the French editor’s notes, from Ibn al-Faqih’s near-contemporary Mukhtasar Kitab al-Buldan), the same custom was still practiced in the same place in the medieval period. Compare the two accounts:
I do not know whether the medieval author simply copied the material from Herodotus to fill space, or whether the tradition remained alive, but it is an interesting survival either way.
As for Alexander Helios, we have covered him before. The ancient historians describe him being taken to Rome and held as a captive. He disappears from history shortly after Octavian made a show of pardoning him, probably because he died. Fringe speculators think that the child fled to America to escape the Romans, but the ancient historians are silent where they would have been quite noisy had any affront to the power of Octavian, such as a dramatic flight of his enemy’s son, occurred so early in his reign.
Heracles (Latin: Hercules) is even less likely. He is not known as a navigator, though he did have a few notable sailing experiences. In myth, he sailed to the islands of Geryon and the Hesperides, though there is no special account of him sailing per se; it is more of a logical inference from his arrival on the islands. He also sailed around the world in a single day in the golden cup used by the Sun at night, but this is again a mythological event taking place in the cosmic ocean, not a real-world voyage. Finally, he is sometimes said to have been the intended commander of the Argo, on which ship he sailed from Iolkos to Troy. This is a late addition to the Argonauts myth, and it seems to have been created mostly to fit the most famous hero onto the Argo alongside the other Super Friends. It is an old story, though. Herodotus mentions it in Histories 7.193. But the oldest complete account of the Argonauts’ voyage (Pindar’s Pythian 4) mentions Heracles only in passing, and Homer and Hesiod are silent on his involvement. In no case, though, is he credited with exceptional navigation skills. Indeed, he is not the navigator on Jason’s crew.
So why would Pulitzer think that Hercules is was “known as the great navigator”?
The only connection to Hercules as a navigator comes from modern descriptions of coinage from Tyre, which in the nineteenth century was described in a Harper’s article as having been “struck by Tyre in honor of its founder, Hercules, the navigator.” This wording is important because, with British spelling, we can see that the phrasing was borrowed from William Stukeley’s Stonehenge: A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids (1740), where the whole phrase appears except for the gloss “the navigator,” which seems to have been added from the 1793 Historical Views of Devonshire, where the author attributes it to an anonymous correspondent. In turn, that correspondent was attempting to translate an odd stone with the Roman letters TOREUS carved into it. “I take the word Toreus,” he wrote, “to be an epithet of Hercules, the navigator, from whom is named Hertland Point, or Hercules Promon. near Hertland Abbey.” (The inscription was probably a grave marker for a Romanized Briton.) I have no idea where the correspondent got the idea that Hercules was a navigator, but he and Harper’s are the only people to have used the phrase “Hercules, the navigator” so far as I can find.
The answer seems to be that early writers weren’t entirely clear on the Phoenician Hercules, whom they saw as persisting in Spain and Britain into the Roman period. The Greeks and Romans identified Heracles/Hercules with the god Melqart of Phoenician Tyre, who is sometimes thought to be the patron of sailors and navigators. Little to nothing survives of Phoenician mythology, and there are no myths or legends attributing to Melqart any special navigational skill or any actual sailing experience. Sanchuniathon, who preserves most of what remains of Phoenician mythology, mentions Melqart (Melicartus) only in passing, to identify him with Heracles, and otherwise attributes sailing and navigation to other divine heroes.
A bit of confusion occurs in the Victorian-era America Cyclopaedia article on Mythology, which identifies Heracles as Melqart and claims “he conquers the savage races of distant coasts.” In this form the story entered Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in Part IV, Chapter II of that monumental work of pseudo-history, and thus into our current set of fringe claims. In Part V, Chapter IX, author Igantius Donnelly is more explicit still and closer to Pulitzer: “Hercules was the patron divinity of the Phœnicians. He was, as we have shown elsewhere, one of the gods of Atlantis--probably one of its great kings and navigators.” And there you have it! Pulitzer borrowed his claim directly from the wording in Donnelly.
Pulitzer seems to argue that Phoenicians were good sailors, so their god Melqart must have been as well. So if Melqart was Heracles, then Heracles was a great navigator.
He also has a new claim related to the allegedly “Roman” sword found off Oak Island, the one that is almost certainly a modern creation. He now links this to the “lost” Legio IX Hispania legion, for which records end in 108 CE, after it had been dispatched to Britain. He mistakenly takes the plot of the 1954 novel Eagle of the Ninth as history and paraphrases its famous—and fictitious—line that they marched into Caledonia and were “never heard of again.” (The legion also featured in books by Karl Edward Wagner, Valerio Massimo Manfredi, and others, as well as several movies, with varying amounts of science fiction and fantasy.) In his telling, the legion continued through Scotland to Iceland, Greenland, and Canada, decamping at Oak Island.
In reality, the records are unclear, and the legion’s ultimate fate is unknown. Many believe it was wiped out in a battle in Britain, but the presence of its name in the Netherlands around 120 CE argues that at least some of the Legio IX Hispania survived down to around 120 and did not disappear into the New World. At any rate, either 108 or 120 is too early for Pulitzer’s original claim, that the “Roman” sword had been made for Commodus (reigned 180-192 CE). Somehow the ancients were sending thousands of people to Oak Island, from opposing sides of various wars, over hundreds of years without leaving a single record or a single trace! No wonder he needs to invoke the magical power of Melqart for this to make any kind of sense.
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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