Last week I talked a bit about Josiah Priest, the author of American Antiquities (5 editions, 1833-1835), which was one of the first fringe history books in the modern style. By that, I mean that it’s a collection of random rumors, confusion, and lies, liberally spiced with plagiarism and recycled older work, enlivened by misspellings and a general lack of overall plan or coherent argument. It’s the common ancestor of the collected works of Erich von Däniken, Peter Kolosimo, Robert Charroux, and all the others of their ilk. The mischievous side of me has half a mind to gently rewrite it more contemporary English and see how many fringe publishers would snap it up. But I digress.
I first read American Antiquities about fifteen years ago, but my memory of it is a bit thin. As I mentioned last week, because of the book’s importance as both precedent and research source for modern fringe writers, I’ve wanted to add it to my Library for a long time, but its 400 pages are more than I wanted to transcribe and proofread. However, since I have to reread it in order to write about it for the book on the mound builder myth that I am currently writing, I decided to double up tasks. I have a decent OCR transcription of the book, so I am both reading and proofreading the text. I am about two-thirds of the way through, and I must admit to having forgotten so many interesting things from the book.
They aren’t interesting because Priest was right, of course. They’re interesting because of all the many ways he set the stage for modern liars. Pretty much everything we see today is already present in his book. We have Scandinavians, Greeks, Romans, and Phoenicians claimed as early colonists. We have discussion of the giant Nephilim as the mound builders, with reference to both double-teeth and six toes on each foot. He speaks of cadres of ancient Egyptian mummies supposedly buried in the western U.S. and of the Zeno Brothers’ alleged voyage to America. And more important still, we even have claims about Atlantis as the homeland of the lost white race of mound builders. In all of this, I was struck by how closely American Antiquities resembles Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, which similarly ascribed ancient works to white Nephilim from Atlantis.
But the differences between Priest and later writers are also instructive. Modern writers, from Donnelly on down, are decidedly more secular, even when addressing religious subjects. Priest, however, puts all of his fringe history in the basket of Arkism, the bizarre fringe belief of the late 1700s and early 1800s that held that all religions around the world were corrupt remembrances of Noah’s Ark, on the theoretical grounding that all people descend from Noah’s three sons and therefore share in the memory of the Ark.
Consider this passage in which Priest describes the Ark and Atlantis in an effort to prove that the first Americans were white but destroyed by evil Asiatic “Indians” (i.e. Native Americans) at a later date:
But what is the distance from Mount Ararat by way of Bhering’s strait, to the middle of the United States, which is the region of the Missouri? It is something over ten thousand miles; nearly half the circuit of the globe. Here, in the region of the western states, we have, by the aid of Baron Humboldt, supposed the country of Aztalan was situated; where the great specimens of labor and ancient manners are most abundant. If this was the way the first peopIe came into America, it is very clear they could not, in the ordinary way of making a settlement here and there, have arrived soon enough to show signs of as great antiquity, in their works in America, as those of the same sort found in the north of Europe. Some other way, therefore, we are confident, the first inhabitants must have pursued, so that their works in America might compare, in character and antiquity, with those of other nations. From Ararat, in a westerly course, passing through Europe, by way of the countries now situated in Russia in Europe, to the Atlantic, the distance is scarcely 5000 miles; not half the distance the route of Bhering’s strait would have been. And if the Egyptian tradition be true respecting the island Atalantis, and the conjectures of naturalists about a union of Europe and America on the north, there was nothing to hinder their settling here, immediately after their dispersion.
While much is made of Priest’s encyclopedic collection of Fortean archaeology—most of which is still repeated today—I am fascinated by his synthesis of various scientific, religious, and batshit crazy ideas about the peopling of the Americas to attempt to unify them into a comprehensive and complicated history of the world that places the United States dead center in history from Noah to today. None of it is original to him except the effort to throw everything into the blender to see if enough will come together to stick in the craw of mainstream science.
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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