The internet is still aghast at House science committee member Paul Broun’s claims that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies” from the “pit of hell.” However, Broun is not the first and won’t be the last politician to subordinate science to ideology. William Jennings Bryan was Secretary of State and nearly president of the United States before he went on to prosecute John Scopes for teaching evolution in Tennessee. Ignatius Donnelly was a congressman before almost single-handedly sparking the Atlantis genre of pseudoscience. President Andrew Jackson used the false myth of a lost race of white mound builders to justify the Trail of Tears.
But crossing the Pond, we find in the pages of history a subtler but no less fictitious attempt to force the past to conform to ideology. Regular readers will remember “Arkism,” the weird attempt to argue from the premise that Noah’s Flood was the last common event shared by all humanity that therefore all world religions were distortions of the Genesis flood myth. Well, at the height of the British Empire, the future Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland, William Gladstone, proposed a similar theory about the origins of Greek mythology.
In a series of works beginning with Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (1858) and continuing in Juventus Mundi (1869) and articles in the Nineteenth Century (down to 1879), Gladstone—trained in the Classics, but deeply religious—argued that the Biblical account of creation was the first and only truth, and that Greek mythology was a degenerate corruption of the same, an imperfectly preserved revelation. Thus, Zeus and his two brothers, Poseidon and Hades, are a degenerate version of the Christian Trinity, confused with elements of Satan. The glories of the Christ to come—Divine Glory and Divine Wisdom—were divided wrongly between Apollo and Athena, who, through confusion, gave rise to several ancillary deities to personify their various attributes.
In this view, everything about Greek religion that agreed with the aesthetics and morals of Protestant Christianity—particularly the Church of England—was therefore original to Greek faith, while those elements at odds with Victorian morality, particularly myths of the gods’ various sexual conquests and homosexual loves, must therefore be a corruption introduced by vile and base barbarians who projected their own unnatural desires into the sky.
Gladstone’s social position and personal rectitude went a long way toward promoting this theory, though other scholars quickly challenged it on the basis of fact: There was simply no evidence for the corruption theory unless one assumed that the Biblical account was the first, and perfect, form. In fact, when arranging Greek texts chronologically, it became obvious that from Homer to the Hesiod to Plato, mythology became more systematic, not less; and morality approached closer to the Victorian ideal, not farther from it. George W. Cox cut Gladstone’s theory to shreds in his unfortunately named Aryan Mythology (1870, rev. 1882).
Gladstone also argued in his Homer that because the word “blue” is never used in Homer, the Greeks were therefore colorblind.
The point, of course, is that politicians and religion tend toward one result: distorting facts in favor of ideology. Or, with the right assumptions, any set of texts can be distorted into anything, from Christian fundamentalism to the ancient astronaut theory to Cthulhu in World Mythology.
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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