In an article published this morning on Mysterious Universe, fringe history’s leading purveyor of logorrhea, Micah Hanks, offered some poorly reasoned speculation on whether ancient texts can be used to determine the reality of prehistoric cataclysms. Not, mind you, your run of the mill cataclysms like volcanic eruptions or earthquakes. He’s talking about nuclear explosions, cometary collisions, and other events that range from the unusual to the unlikely. And to do so, he relies on (sigh) another fabricated ancient text concocted by a Soviet fringe writer.
Things don’t get off to a good start when Hanks begins, as all fringe history must, with Atlantis. What is odd is that Hanks doesn’t discuss the famous passage in which the Egyptian priest tells Plato’s ancestor Solon about the many disasters and cataclysms that have befallen the ancient world—which would seem to be more relevant to his thesis than the passage he does cite from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of the Timaeus:
Let me begin by observing first of all, that nine thousand was the sum of years which had elapsed since the war which was said to have taken place between those who dwelt outside the Pillars of Heracles and all who dwelt within them; this war I am going to describe. Of the combatants on the one side, the city of Athens was reported to have been the leader and to have fought out the war; the combatants on the other side were commanded by the kings of Atlantis, which, as was saying, was an island greater in extent than Libya and Asia, and when afterwards sunk by an earthquake, became an impassable barrier of mud to voyagers sailing from hence to any part of the ocean.
If your argument is going to be that ancient texts report horrific cataclysms, you’d think you’d quote this section instead:
There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes. There is a story, which even you have preserved, that once upon a time Phaethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father's chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt. Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals; at such times those who live upon the mountains and in dry and lofty places are more liable to destruction than those who dwell by rivers or on the seashore.
Even Ignatius Donnelly managed that one in Ragnarok. Someone who actually knew the material at more than a superficial level would be able to connect this passage on the destruction of fire and water to the almost incredibly widespread myth of the same across Near Eastern cultures. It occurs, for example, in the fragments of Berossus (Seneca, Natural Questions 3.29), 1 Enoch 10:13-16, the Biblical text of 2 Peter 3:6-7, Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews 1.70-71, the Latin Life of Adam and Eve 49.3-50.2, and so many more. It entered into Hermetic lore, and it remained current down to the Arabs of the Islamic era, who incorporated it into their pyramid myth. He might also have noted that Plato’s discussion here is connected to his similar discussion of cataclysms in Laws 677a and 677b.
The overwhelming impression, however, that arises from considering this body of texts as a whole is that the destructions of fire and water arose from ideology—the myth of the Great Flood and its opposite, the Great Conflagration—than from actual facts. But one could, in theory, make a case for ancient knowledge of star-born cataclysm, as Hanks tries and fails to do, if one knew enough to cite Plato on the Great Year, Berossus on the astrological signs of the Conflagration, and the Arab pyramid myths on the destruction coming from heaven at certain astrological time frames.
Despite the fact that the destruction of Atlantis and all the other cataclysms Solon allegedly heard from the Egyptian priests were natural disasters, Hanks thinks that the tales bear a “similarity” to the infamous accounts if Vedic wonder-weapons that ancient astronaut theorists routinely link to nuclear weaponry. Here the poverty of Hanks’s research shows through. He quotes a section of the Mahabharata that was first used by Russian ancient astronaut theorists 60 years ago as evidence of nuclear war and made famous in Morning of the Magicians in 1960:
…. a blazing shaft possessed of the effulgence of a smokeless fire (was) let off… That was how this weapon was perceived. The consequences of its use also evoke involuntary associations. ‘… This makes the bodies of the dead unidentifiable… The survivors lose their nails and hair, and their food becomes unfit for eating. For several subsequent years the Sun, the stars and the sky remain shrouded with clouds and bad weather.’
This passage is an intentional mistranslation of the Mahabharata’s Mausala Parva, sec. 2, which Hanks has borrowed from fringe literature. It appears on so many websites that I could not identify from which he lifted it. In conventional translation, you can see how the text has been manipulated:
The mighty bowmen among the Vrishis shot hundreds of thousands of shafts at him, but none of these succeeded in piercing him, for he was none else than the Destroyer of all creatures. Day by day strong winds blew, and many were the evil omens that arose, awful and foreboding the destruction of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas. The streets swarmed with rats and mice. Earthen pots showed cracks or broken from no apparent cause. At night, the rats and mice ate away the hair and nails of slumbering men. […] The Sun, whether when rising or setting over that city, seemed to be surrounded by headless trunks of human form.
Hanks doesn’t recognize the fraud because he never bothered to consult the primary source, instead relying on an eccentric translation that freely mixed and matched bits and pieces and added false words. The first sentence in the false version is actually from Drona Parva sec. 201, a completely separate book of the Mahabharata, where it was ripped from a standard translation. The final sentence of his translation appears, to the best of my knowledge, to be entirely false.
Hanks’s translation is taken, indirectly, from a Soviet magazine. It appeared, in its plagiarized and falsified English form, in popular science and science fiction writer Alexander Gorbovsky’s “Riddles of Ancient History” in the September 1986 edition of Sputnik magazine, a Soviet publication aimed at Western audiences that famously contained propaganda and lies, including many earlier articles advocating ancient astronaut theories as a secular answer to religious miracles.
Micah Hanks doesn’t care about that, of course, because it would require going beyond fringe literature to examine primary source—even though I already laid all this out five years ago, and a simple Google search would have uncovered my discussion of the fraud.
Hanks goes on to dismiss the idea that such texts represent nuclear weapons. Instead, he follows Graham Hancock (whom he cites by name) in endorsing the idea that they are memories of unspeakable cosmic impacts tens of thousands of years ago. He offers not a hint of how such stories would have survived such lengths of time unchanged, nor why they take such different forms in the Near East and in India. He concludes with a word salad of prevarication designed to make himself appear reasonable:
In truth, we may never fully reveal the epic levels of destruction that occurred on this planet since ancient times, though perhaps the persisting question is whether the holy epics and dialogues of antiquity, opposed to being merely folk tales, are actually based on factual occurrences that detail multiple levels of devastation that occurred — perhaps on a global scale — in our ancient world.
The logic of the argument is unsound: If we cannot prove that “epic levels” of cataclysm occurred, then how could we evaluate whether ancient texts accurately report them? I am baffled by his notion that geology cannot fully reveal evidence of such destruction while contradictory and demonstrably incorrect myths and legends somehow do. Besides, myths and legends may well (but do not need to) have a core of truth, but that core of truth needn’t be a comet (pace Edmund Halley). What if the actual kernel of truth relates to intercultural conflict, for example, and the rest is merely science fiction trappings, sort of like the way Game of Thrones retells the English War of the Roses with dragons and magic?
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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