I’m sure that many of you will have seen the story running this week in the Atlantic in which Sam Kriss explains the latest strange obsession of conspiracy theorists: Flat-Earth super-forests. I’m almost positive I mentioned the idea last month, but the gist of it is that a Crimean man is claiming that not only is the Earth flat, but that mesas and oddly-shaped mountains are actually the trunks of prehistoric trees, which were felled ages ago by a conspiracy. Somehow, according to Kriss, the Crimean man claims there was a nuclear war in the nineteenth century, lost civilizations had advanced technology, and giants felled the super-trees using powerful machines.
The Flat-Earth claims don’t interest me much, but it is fascinating that the Flat Earth lunatics are roping in Nephilim-Giants in order to marry their fringe geology to ancient mythology, so that the giants of myth have equally giant trees. I guess Gilgamesh, one of the Giants according to the fragmentary Book of Giants, needed super-cedars, as regular ones simply wouldn’t do!
But I was much more interested in an advertisement I found in an old issue of Weird Tales magazine, from October 1936. I am not sure when the ad first ran, but it was still being used in the 1960s. (Here is a late printing of the same ad.) This fascinated me because it seems to explain one of the reasons that fringe historians became bizarrely convinced that Akhenaten had contact with space aliens. It certainly isn’t the obvious conclusion from his life story, nor even from the popular fringe view that Akhenaten was responsible for Judaism, as Freud would claim in Moses and Monotheism three years later.
The Rosicrucians of San Jose, California—the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosæ Crucis, founded in 1915—ran an advertisement featuring a bust labeled “Amenhotep IV,” which was Akhenaten’s name before he changed it. The ad then asks “Whence came the knowledge that built the Pyramids and the mighty Temples of the Pharaohs? … Did their knowledge come from a race now submerged beneath the sea, or were they touched with Infinite inspiration?”
Most readers will see both the reference to the lost civilization of Atlantis and an uncanny echo in the recent claims of Ancient Aliens that geniuses received their knowledge through a mental transmission from space aliens. It is little different here. AMORC claimed that “Amenhotep IV, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton” and many others served among its illustrious ranks. It also says that “Today it is known that they discovered and learned to interpret Secret Methods for the development of the inner power of the mind” (emphasis in original). Like any good scam, AMORC offered its membership free access to these secrets with a bit of pressure to become a paying member.
I was struck by how much of the Rosicrucian myth—a concocted legend expanded and perpetuated by Henry Spencer Lewis—echoes some claims very familiar to us from modern fringe history. AMORC claimed that it was a direct lineal descendant of an ancient Egyptian mystery school founded by Hatshepsut. This seems to be a paganized gloss on Freemasonry’s alleged ancient origins. (Both AMORC and Freemasonry are intertwined with European Rosicrucianism of the 1600s, which in turn took influence from Hermeticism and thus from Egypt and the myth of the Watchers.) This claim echoes the modern allegation that the so-called “Venus Families” have run a mystery school from Akhenaten’s time to today, or the allegation that a White Brotherhood, Serpent Brotherhood, or Horus Brotherhood preserved Atlantean or Nephilim wisdom in Egypt.
Lewis, in his Complete History of the Rosicrucian Order, lays great weight on Akhenaten, “with whose history all Rosicrucians are greatly concerned. He was the last Great Master in the family of the founders and the one to whom we owe the really wonderful philosophies and writings used so universally in all Lodge work throughout the world.” And lest you think this is the whole of Lewis’s contribution to Akhenaten’s fringe history, there is more: He also declared Akhenaten “Aryan” and claimed he presided over 283 Rosicrucian brothers and 62 sisters—the secret brotherhood that Graham Hancock, Andrew Collins, and Scott Wolter (via Ralph Ellis) go on about. He specified that these Rosicrucian brothers wore linen outfits with cords around their waists, and thus inspired all future monks.
Lewis admits in his book that he derived his mythic version of Akhenaten from The Life and Times of Akhnaton, a 1910 book by Arthur Weigall, revised and reprinted in 1922. He follows it exactly, but interpolated into it Rosicrucian cult and brotherhood, turning Weigall’s sub rosa narrative of how Akhenaten anticipated Christianity into one of how Akhenaten was actually a Rosicrucian.
The influence of Lewis on fringe history is not speculation, though. In The Secret Chamber Revisited, Robert Bauval discusses Lewis’s claims explicitly (though confusing him with Lewis Spence) and devotes part of the book to AMORC. Bauval further explained that he is friends with AMORC’s current head, Christian Bernard, and gave talks to the organization about the Sphinx. Lewis had claimed to possess ancient maps showing the brotherhood’s secret hall of records below Giza, a myth familiar from its parallel claim in Edgar Cayce’s prophecies, and originating in the Arab pyramid myth and the belief, abstracted from Enoch’s wisdom pillars and Hermes Trismegistus’s antediluvian subterranean temple-writings, that the pyramids’ hidden chambers contained books and inscriptions describing “the nature of all things, the science of law and the laws of all the sciences” and “books they had written on gold leaf in which they had recorded the past and the future” (Akhbar al-zaman 2.2, my trans.). In other words, the Hall of Records was just warmed over medieval texts that Lewis and Cayce could be pretty sure English-speakers had never read.
Lewis made his claim of a hall of records beneath the Sphinx in 1936, along with a diagram of the same, and Cayce miraculously came up with the same in 1939, much the way he miraculously dreamed dreams that reflected the fringe literature he had just read and, in moments where he seemed to think he wouldn’t be caught, explicitly cited by name. A psychic named H. C. Randall-Stevens published in 1935 a very similar diagram of a chamber under the Sphinx, which Lewis seems to obliquely allude to as “mystical manuscripts that have been released in a limited manner in recent years.” Lewis, for what it’s worth, never offered evidence for his assertions, citing only “Rosicrucian archives” and the aforementioned “mystical manuscripts.”
Sadly, I do not have access to Randall-Stevens’s book, A Voice Out of Egypt, to determine his sources, but the book attempted to link Egypt and Atlantis. What excerpts I have seen in my judgment seem to be modeled quite closely on underground chambers and miraculous buildings found in medieval Arabic pyramid lore, though I do not have enough material to prove how he obtained it, directly or indirectly. He did admit that he modeled his claims on Masonic lore, which has the same origin point in the Enochian wisdom pillars, and may also have proposed an underground Sphinx temple in parallel to the Masons’ Secret Vault allegory. But since his and Lewis’s claims seem to amplify, directly or indirectly, medieval Arabic legends of the Giza plateau—which asserted that chambers and halls and “subterranean passages made of lead and stone” existed beneath the pyramids—it would not surprise me if these “archives” were little more than copies of medieval legends, repackaged with a showman’s love of drama.
One version, sufficiently brief, gives the story thus:
It is said in some books of the Copts that King Sūrīd, after hearing the priests tell him that a fire would come from beyond the sign of Leo and burn up the world, made underground passageways in the pyramids in preparation; the Nile could be brought into these underground passages and discharged from there at several points in the western territory and in the land of Sa‘id. The King filled these channels with wonders, talismans, and idols. (Akhbar al-zaman 2.2, my trans.)
Five centuries later, Al-Suyuti quotes another writer to this effect:
[Hermes] gave orders for the building of the Pyramids and the deposition in them of treasures, books on the sciences, and other valuables which, one might fear, would perish and disappear. […] Each of their stones is five cubits by two, and it is said that the builder had made for each of the two Pyramids. several doors, built over underground vaults made of stone; the length of each vault is twenty cubits, and each door is made of a single stone revolving upon a hinge in such a way that when the door is shut one would not notice that it was there. Each door leads to seven chambers, and each chamber bears the name of a star and is locked with locks. (trans. Leon Nemoy)
There are many other versions, but the bottom line is always the same: The Arabs believed in underground chambers beneath the pyramids, filled with technology and books, and this is the clear origin of what Lewis and Cayce passed off as the mysterious Hall of Records of some secret brotherhood of Aryan supermen. From the extant Arabic texts, we know that such stories were first told of Egyptian temples—where Hermetic philosophers first practiced—before being applied to the pyramids. Fragments of this more ancient story survive (Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History 22.15.30; Abu Ma‘shar al-Balhi in Ibn Juljul, Tabaqat al-atibbaʾ 5-10; Akhbar al-zaman 2.2, etc.).
Now, the question is whether either claimant was aware of this. They need not necessarily have been, at least not directly, since the claim was so easy to find in old books. The evidence from Calmet’s Dictionary of the Holy Bible shows a belief in chambers beneath the Sphinx was, if not exactly well-known in the 1700s and 1800s, at least easily accessible to even the least sophisticated psychic frauds. The Dictionary quotes Richard Pococke’s account of his Egyptian travels from 1743 in which he speaks of the Sphinx as having “apartments beneath.” His claim derived from Pliny’s report that the inhabitants of Giza believed that the Sphinx was hollow and the tomb of King Harmaïs or Armais (Natural History 36.17), though he himself did not believe it. As I alluded to above, Ammianus Marcellinus, writing around 391 CE, had spoken of underground passages full of secret antediluvian wisdom from the mystery schools, though these were likely meant to be a description of rock-cut tombs.
Based on such accounts, Giovanni Battista Caviglia, the Egyptologist, claimed that a secret network of tunnels would be found to connect all of the Giza pyramids (New Monthly Magazine 10, p. 561; Vyse, Operations 1, p. 141), and his views were widely adopted in the early 1800s. Importantly, Charles Piazzi Smyth preserved such speculation in his Life and Work at the Great Pyramid (1867), recalling dismissively “all sorts of underground passages from the Sphinx to either the Great or Second Pyramid” that filled early modern Egyptology. William G. Clarke speculated in 1883 that perhaps a lucky turn of the spade would uncover “an interior vault” or a “subterranean passage” under the Sphinx itself. Theosophists spoke, from no good knowledge other than the preceding speculation, of the same passage: “According to tradition, a subterranean passage connects the interior of the Sphinx with that of the Pyramid.” I would be remiss not to note that H. P. Lovecraft was familiar with all of this material and for Harry Houdini wrote in “Under the Pyramids” in none else than Weird Tales in 1924 of “the legends of subterranean passages beneath the monstrous creature, leading down, down, to depths none might dare hint at—depths connected with mysteries older than the dynastic Egypt we excavate.”
The idea was there for anyone to recycle, and it is no surprise that occultists did just that.
Anyway, this part of the story is well enough known that it is told, more or less (well, mostly less), in books like Prince and Picknett’s Stargate Conspiracy. Lewis’s promotion of Akhenaten as an initiate and possessor of the secret wisdom, however, seems to be less well known, but it is an obvious antecedent for the claims later made for him that the pharaoh had knowledge from aliens. I should have known, though, that to answer a question about where fringe historians got an idea, I should always turn first to the pulps.
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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