I am constantly amazed by fringe historians and their justifications for incomplete evidence, sloppy research, and zany conclusions. Over at Graham Hancock’s website, author and cable TV producer Kevin Curran has an “Author of the Month” article discussing his self-published book Fall of a Thousand Suns: How Near Misses and Comet Impacts Affected the Religious Beliefs of Our Ancestors, a book that is in essence a rewriting of Ignatius Donnelly’s Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel, updated with more recent references. The central arguments are the same: At the end of the last Ice Age a large comet struck the earth, causing devastation to some lost culture and generating countless myths and legends related to fire from the sky. Both also attribute Noah’s Flood to a cometary impact, a claim first made by Edmond Halley in 1694 and made famous by William Whiston in a 1696 book. Curran adds a second and more recent comet strike, in historical times, because he dates the Flood of Noah later than Donnelly and therefore needs two comets to achieve the same results.
If all of this is familiar, it’s probably because the formerly famous fringe historian Alan Alford made the claim of frequent asteroid, comet, and meteor impacts the centerpiece of his Sitchin-inspired books in the 1990s. Truly nothing fringe ever dies.
But check out how Curran, in discussing a 2007 claim that a comet hit North America, explains his research methodology in his Hancock website article (with original capitalization):
Fall of a Thousand Suns: How Near Misses and Comet Impacts affected the Religious Beliefs of our Ancestors touches on the scientific evidence that supports the scientists’ claim, but doesn’t get into the minutiae. It would be a book of its own, and probably a pretty dry one.
Ah, yes: Let’s rewrite history and change our entire view of the development of civilization—but let’s not worry about those pesky details! And why should we ignore the details? Well, it’s because Curran is referring to the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis, a controversial claim proposed in 2006 which argued that around 10,900 BCE the impact of a near-Earth object triggered massive fires and killed off the megafauna. Although some follow-up work has offered limited support, a larger number of studies have undercut most of the key claims. I wrote about the conflicting evidence here and linked to some recent studies on the subject.
Curran, though, seems to feel that we should accept his word that the impact actually occurred, but I’m not willing to extend that level of trust to a TV producer. His use of support from ancient history is similarly shallow. The evidence he gives to his Graham Hancock readers is ripped right from Ignatius Donnelly: He argues that Plato’s account of the fall of Phaethon, the son of the Sun who drove the solar chariot to a fiery crash, recounts the fall of a comet. Donnelly did it first in Part III, Chapter V of Ragnarok, albeit with more from Ovid’s version than Plato’s:
The cause of the trouble is a something which takes place high in the heavens; it rushes through space; it threatens the stars; it traverses particular constellations; it is disastrous; it has yellow hair; it is associated with great heat; it sets the world on fire it dries up the seas; its remains are scattered over the earth; it covers the earth with ashes; the sun ceases to appear; there is a time when he is, as it were, in eclipse, darkened; after a while he returns; verdure comes again upon the earth, the springs and rivers reappear, the world is renewed. During this catastrophe man has hidden himself, swanlike, in the waters; or the intelligent children of the earth betake themselves to deep caverns for protection from the conflagration.
Curran even redraws the same imaginary chart of Phaeton’s ride grafted onto the sky as the “path” of the comet! Weirdly enough, both authors also use Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato in discussing the same material.
It’s not entirely and impossible idea on the surface, but there are many problems with accepting Phaethon as a comet or even a meteor. First, it suggests that ancient people could not tell the difference between the sun and a comet. Second, it asks us to accept Plato’s rationalization of the myth in a highly unusual way. In the Timaeus Plato makes an Egyptian say that the myth is symbolic and related to astrology: “Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around Earth and a great conflagration of things upon Earth, which recurs after long intervals” (trans. Benjamin Jowett). This “declination” (or “shifting”) of the heavenly bodies ties into the old belief, preserved in the fragments of Berossus and the Life of Adam and Eve, that fire and water took turns devastating the earth. We know that Plato’s version can’t be a tsunami-generating comet as Curran believes because of what Curran left out with strategic ellipses: “At such times all they that dwell on the mountains and in high and dry places suffer destruction more than those who dwell near to rivers or the sea.” The fire might come from the sky, but it doesn’t create tsunamis! In the passage, Plato was drawing a contrast to his own discussion in Laws 677a and 677b where he specifies that floods destroy everyone not on a mountain. Therefore, with fire and water being opposite, the destruction of fire must therefore kill those on mountains. Failure to note context leads to incorrect conclusions.
Curran’s argument is also somewhat illogical in describing why we need to believe his assertion that ancient myths describe the impact of comets:
We’ve simply foolishly dismissed their ancient end of the world stories as religious fiction or moral cautionary tales. They tried their best, without science, to describe what they witnessed. One thing is clear. If we continue to ignore the first-hand accounts of our ancestors, then one day we’ll turn on FOX News, CNN, BBC, NHK, or the Ryan Seacrest News Network and see satellite pictures of our soon-to-be murderer.
How would accepting that comets hit the earth in the past (something most scientists believe occurred repeatedly over earth’s history) change the path of an oncoming comet? And if it is so important to accept Curran’s claims as fact, why are we supposed to not worry about the minutiae of the underlying research?
The problem is that Curran is partly right even in being mostly wrong. While there is no evidence that the Great Flood ever happened, much less that a comet caused it, the ancients certainly did observe comets and saw asteroids and meteors fall to earth. Some of these even influenced ancient myths and cult practices. But Curran goes far beyond the evidence and then expects us to look the other way when the details don’t add up. That’s why it is ironic to read his in his book description, “Hopefully, Fall of a Thousand Suns will inspire readers to turn off the premiere of Cajun Hoarder Swamp Truckers on History Channel, research some actual history, and continue to explore this strange and fascinating subject.”
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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