Yesterday, I discussed one way that believers in “Ark-ism” twisted an ancient text to make the case that pagan religions were a corruption of the story of Noah’s Ark in Genesis. For Since I think Arkite worship (the “ancient ark-onaut theory,” if you will) is an interesting parallel to the ancient astronaut theory, I’d like to take a look at another case of Ark-ist silliness that has very close parallels in today’s ancient astronaut nonsense.
In Jacob Bryant’s New System, the eighteenth century scholar attempted to make the case that both the Argo of the Greek Jason myth and the chest in which the Egyptian god Osiris had been entombed were corruptions of Noah’s Ark. Bryant’s text is in green, and my notes are in black.
Deucalion was the Greek flood hero, often thought of as the Greek Noah. He and his wife survived a Flood sent by Zeus in an ark. Bryant here sees the similarities, but he attributes them to the Greeks stealing the story from the Jews, and reporting on a real Flood, rather than what we know today: the Hebrew and Greek stories both descend from an even more ancient Mesopotamian original. This is almost exactly how modern ancient astronaut theorists work with ancient myths, imagining them to all report corrupt versions of real alien encounters, without consideration for the established connections between cultures and peoples. Bryant, at least, had an excuse: The Mesopotamian Flood myth wasn’t discovered until after he was dead.
Bryant is correct that the Greeks often localized myths to their location, but he has taken this fact as evidence that Greek mythology can be divorced from Greece and reassigned to the Holy Land. This is actually quite similar to what Robert Temple did in The Sirius Mystery, arguing that the myths of the Dogon of Africa were “really” Greek and, in turn, therefore Egyptian and Sumerian. Before him, Ignatius Donnelly used the same technique to revamp Ark-ism as survivals of the history of Atlantis rather than the Ark!
Now we get to the meat of the zaniness. Bryant claims that Noah’s Ark, Jason’s Argo, and the ship of Osiris are all the same boat because all three are the constellation Argo Navis in the night sky. (Argo Navis was once the largest constellation in the heavens, representing the back two-thirds of a boat, but it was broken up in the eighteenth century into four separate clusters.) This issue is a bit complex, but the main point is that we have no idea what the earliest peoples saw when they looked up in the night sky. The most generous modern estimate places Argo Navis’ invention prior to 2800 BCE (though this is highly speculative), but Eratosthenes reported that the constellation was only later adapted to the Argonaut myth; originally it represented the ship of Danaos, the first boat ever built.
We have no evidence of what early Egyptians saw in the sky, and the suggestion that Argo Navis was known to the Egyptians before the coming of the Greeks is speculative at best.
The question of the homology of “Argo” and “Ark” is another case of silliness. The word “ark” derives from the Old English earc, from the Latin arca, a box or chest. It has no direct connection to argos, the Greek word meaning “swift” or “shining” or “bright.” But even if it did, it is irrelevant: Noah’s “ark” is the English term for a boat that was known in Hebrew as teyvat, a word with no connection to either term whatsoever. This is the same linguistic word games modern ancient astronaut theorists have used to create false connections between ancient cultures, such as the claim that Jesus spoke Quiche Mayan while dying on the cross.
Nevertheless, all of this "evidence" for an Argo-Ark-Argo Navis connection reappears uncritically in Temple's Sirius Mystery (pp. 242-247, 1998 rev. edition), unchanged from when Bryant made it up 200 years earlier.
Here Bryant has joined yet another “ark” to his theory based on the coincidence of two English uses of the word Ark. The “Ark” of Noah was the teyvat Noah, but the Ark of the Covenant was the ʾĀrôn Hābərît; it is only the Vulgate’s use of the Latin word for box to describe both that led to the coincidence of the English terms.
Just as modern ancient astronaut theorists look for spurious connections based on similarities of language, coincidences of art, etc., so earlier did Bryant create false correlations based on shared names. For him, Egyptian Thebes and Greek Thebes had to be cult centers of Ark worship. We know today that Greek Thebes had been Mycenaean TE-QA-DE (Thebasde), while Egyptian Thebes acquired its conventional name from the Greeks, who tried to transliterate the indigenous Egyptian term Ta-opet, the name of the Karnak temple complex. There is no need to postulate an Ark cult of Theban priests to explain it.
The “misapplied” ark tradition involves Bryant projecting one wherever he needs it. As noted before, the Greek word argos has nothing to do with the English word for ark, and neither with the Hebrew word for Noah’s ship. The connection is entirely spurious, crafted out of sound-alike words, misread history, and plain ignorance.
But when Bryant wrote most of this was forgivable because he did not have access to modern archaeological findings, current linguistic etymologies, or any ancient texts outside the Hebraic and Greco-Roman traditions. Bryant had accidentally struck upon the fact that Mesopotamian and Indo-European mythologies share motifs, but lacking a sound theory to explain them, he ended up constructing a towering edifice of speculation built on foundations of quicksand. His assumption of Biblical primacy is no different than the assumption of alien intervention, and both theories are equally unsound.
Modern ancient astronaut theorists have access to the full range of modern scholarly findings and yet they choose to rely on the same methods and techniques that have failed so spectacularly for more than 300 years.
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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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