America’s Lost Vikings didn’t make quite the splash that the Travel Channel had hope for. The debut of the series starring two ex-History Channel hosts hunting for evidence of Viking incursions into North America attracted just 457,000 viewers in its plum Sunday 10 PM timeslot, losing more than 150,000 viewers from its lead-in, a years-old rerun of Expedition Unknown. The next day, six-year-old reruns of America Unearthed, newly renewed by Travel for a fourth season, held about steady at 421,000 viewers. On Tuesday, over on Travel’s competition, the History Channel, The Curse of Oak Island drew 3.7 million viewers, while Project Blue Book, recently renewed for a second season, brought in 1.6 million viewers, losing more than half of the Curse audience.
Speaking of The Curse of Oak Island, this week’s episode featured the return of Randall Sullivan, who appeared on the show to promote his tie-in companion book of the same title, which I reviewed last year. In the book Sullivan made quite clear that he saw appearances on the show as highly desirable and an affirmation, going so far as to nearly hero-worship show stars Rick and Marty Lagina, and now he has achieved his goal of returning to the series.
Both brothers extensively praise Sullivan’s research and writing skills, though no one notes that the book was commissioned and produced in conjunction with the History Channel, the network that airs Curse. That financial interest really should have been spelled out for viewers. The brothers ask Sullivan if he is happy with the book, which is an odd question to ask an author. What did they expect him to say? “Of course I’m happy with it,” he replied. “I certainly think it’s the most authoritative and entertaining history of Oak Island.”
Sullivan prattled on with nonsense about Oak Island before delivering yet another version of his previous claim that Francis Bacon used Oak Island to hide Shakespeare’s manuscripts and secret wisdom from “even deeper than Templar times.”
While Sullivan delivered nothing that wasn’t in the book—his appearance was basically a commercial combined with a paid vacation—I think it’s probably worth saying something about this notion of secret wisdom from the depths of time. It’s a trope as old as the hills, but so far as I have been able to tell, no one has actually found any of this ancient wisdom that was worth even half the trouble that supposedly went in to keeping it secure.
The oldest sources for the trope come from Mesopotamia. The Epic of Gilgamesh speaks of how Gilgamesh brought back knowledge that had been known before the Flood and inscribed it on stones. The Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal boasted that he had learned to read inscriptions made before the Flood, and the Babylonian priest Berossus told the Flood-hero Xisuthrus inscribed all of the world’s knowledge on tablets before the Flood so that it could be recovered afterward and used to restart civilization. The Egyptians also had legends of texts like the Book of Thoth that were hidden away and protected by divine wrath. The Jewish version of Flood tablet the story had the Watchers carve heavenly mysteries on pillars in Egypt before the Flood, where they restored civilization after Noah’s Flood. Through a long and complicated process, a derivative of this story ended up in medieval legends of the Egyptian pyramids, positing that they contained secret, fantastical wisdom from before the Flood which modern people could not duplicate. This story became highly influential in early modern European occultism, creating the trope of lost knowledge of incalculable value, an occult reflection of the Renaissance interest in recovering Classical texts and eighteenth-century fascination with Eastern wisdom texts. Our modern fringe writers hunt lost ancient wisdom because, more or less, Victorian occultists drew on this material to given spurious antique credence to their ramblings—e.g., as Helena Blavatsky pretended that Theosophy came from prehistoric tablets written in an unreadable tongue. The only thing these forbidden texts had in common was their non-existence.
That didn’t stop people from writing books to pass off as forbidden wisdom. But having read so many of the “secret” books of allegedly ancient vintage, include various Hermetic texts, the supposed revelations of Balinus, Enochian mysteries, various mythic epics, and philosophical treatises… There just isn’t much there. I wish it weren’t the case. While the texts are valuable and interesting on their own merits, as actual wisdom worth protecting for thousands of years against the unclean, they are less useful than a Google search. Balinus’s secret, allegedly protected by a curse, was nothing more than an introductory philosophy text based on the idea that everything is either hot or cold, wet or dry. It’s not exactly worth casting down divine vengeance over. Sure, it’s possible that some mind-blowing ancient wisdom exists hidden somewhere, but from every piece of it in the public record, I doubt it. For these reasons, and others, when I hear people say that they think that ancient wisdom is secreted in some place or another, what I hear is that the person has an occult or mystical view of history and is chasing after a myth.
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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