This week, the new head of the Discovery Channel, Rich Ross, announced that he was ending that network’s practice of showing fake documentaries, like the one about the prehistoric shark falsely claimed to still be alive, or the one about man pretending to get eaten by a snake. According to Ross, the network with make “true” information “mandatory” on its shows. Unfortunately, H2 is owned by a different conglomerate, and we’re stuck with hour after hour of flights of fancy passing for science.
Due to some preexisting commitments, I have a little less time this evening than usual, so my review may be a bit spottier than usual.
The obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle came to New York’s Central Park in 1881 because Americans were jealous that Paris and London each had recently acquired one of their own, as did Rome—though its several obelisks arrived in the Roman era. The obelisk dates to about 1450 BCE and was erected at Luxor by Thutmose III.
Wanting to be seen as coequal with the great European power, the powerful New York newspapers began agitating for an American obelisk as soon as news broke that one would leave for London in 1877. Through a serious of blunders, the papers mistakenly claimed that the Khedive of Egypt (the Ottoman viceroy) had planned to give an obelisk to America, and in March 1877 various officials decided to start a fundraising effort to bring the obelisk to America. William H. Vanderbilt contributed $100,000 and selected the site in Central Park where the monument would stand. His reasons for picking the site were obscure, but typically it is attributed to the limited locations available in Central Park, its proximity to the Metropolitan Museum, and the ease with which the obelisk could be anchored to bedrock to secure it safely.
An American official in Cairo, Judge Farman, received two letters from the State Department “accepting” the “gift” of an obelisk that had never been made. Farman, however, took the opportunity to simply ask the Khedive to give America an obelisk. In May 1877, the Khedive donated the matching obelisk that once formed a pair with the one in London, to the United States, for its friendly neutrality in the struggle between France and Britain for control of Egyptian affairs.
However, the Egyptians were not happy about the Khedive exporting their heritage, and protests and legal challenges prevented the monument from leaving the country until 1880. In July, it arrived in New York, and a team of 32 horses and a steam engine took 112 days to drag it to Central Park. The obelisk finally went up in 1881.
When Freemasons found on the obelisk some symbols that are similar to those of the Freemasons (largely due to the Freemasons recycling older symbols and then reading them backward into history) the Masons decided that the piece deserved full Masonic honors. It was difficult to find a date for the ceremony since it was hard work just getting city officials to agree to allow a Masonic ceremony, for they weren’t big on Masonic parades. The Masons had wanted October 2 as a date, but city officials had already booked that day for the unveiling of a bust of Scottish poet Robert Burns, so it had to move. (So much for a government conspiracy!)
On October 9, 1880, the Grand Master of the Masons of New York, Jesse B. Anthony, laid the cornerstone for the obelisk, just as the Masons were asked to do at most major constructions, including the Statue of Liberty. He spoke about architecture, antiquity, and the (myth of) Masonic history dating back to Egypt. He also placed a box in the cornerstone, as per tradition. Fifty thousand people watched as nine thousand Masons marched to the Park for the ceremony. A hymn was composed and sung, praising God for sending the obelisk, which it called the “ancient Sign / Of Thine own Light Divine,” prompting conspiracy theorists to suggest a hidden meaning. There is one, of course, and it goes back to the Masonic view, derived from medieval texts, that obelisks symbolized the pillars of Solomon’s Temple, and in turn two Pillars of Wisdom Enoch erected to preserve knowledge before the Flood—the last remnant of the old myth of the Watchers.
Anti-Masonic conspiracy theorists saw something sinister and pagan in the Egyptian symbolism and themes in Masonic ceremonies. But rather than attribute this to archaizing tendencies (as, for example the Grange adopted what it believed to be the trappings of the Eleusinian Mysteries), conspiracy theorists instead argued that the Masons actually retained genuine Egyptian traditions across thousands of years, and that they secretly were devil-worshipers who used obelisks to symbolize the lost phallus of Osiris. The Masons didn’t exactly dispute most of this. In The Master Mason in 1921, the Mason and Christian writer John Jabez Lanier described the Egyptian belief in resurrection and added that “that first faith is our faith today.” However, due to the influence of the solar theory of the mythology popular in the 1800s, Masons of that era mistakenly believed that Osiris was the sun, or a fertility god. To that end, some conspiracy writers have purposely misrepresented a contemporary article from the Freemasons Repository as confirming that the Masons raised the obelisks “to praise and adore the divinity of the sun,” though the original article says that Thutmose III, not Masons, had that purpose in mind.
For Scott Wolter, though, obelisks have a slightly different meaning. Rather than being demonic solar symbols, for him they are instead giant penises fertilizing the divine goddess he seems to think that the Freemasons and the Knights Templar worshiped. Last season he discussed this in terms of the Washington Monument, which he argued was a penis impregnating what he imagined to be a vulva inscribed on the National Mall (S02E07). Although this was a figment of his imagination (the “vulva” was added only a few years ago to a monument started in 1848), Wolter continues to believe that the Masons are involved in secret goddess worship that involves phallic symbolism. Otto Augustus Wall, who famously described the Golden Fleece as a blonde Aryan woman’s public hair, described the Central Park obelisk as one of the “phallic pillars” in his classic bit of pseudo-history Sex and Sex Worship (1919), so this is nothing new.
We open with the opening of a briefcase within which is a model of the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and other New York City monuments. These Scott Wolter solemnly places on a street map of New York City as dry ice swirls around the structures. The last of these is Cleopatra’s Needle, in Central Park. Then we cut to the opening credits before jetting off for Central Park.
“That was a long, pointless opening,” my brother said, seeing the show for the first time tonight. It is the first time I’ve watched the show with other people in the room. I usually don’t because it makes it hard to concentrate on my writing.
Wolter gives a potted history of the English takeover of New Amsterdam as Wolter arrives in Central Park to meet his tipster, Dorothy McCarthy, to whom he mansplains her Egyptian-themed jewelry. Dorothy is wearing the cartouche of Thutmose III, the pharaoh who built the obelisk now known as Cleopatra’s Needle. McCarthy was the advocate who got the Egyptian government to protest to the New York mayor’s office, who in turn covered the monument in scaffolding as part of a restoration effort. McCarthy tells Wolter that the obelisk was erected in honor of Amon-Ra, the sun god, whom Wolter considered Egypt’s most important god. Wolter notes that there is a similar obelisk in Paris, and McCarthy notes that one is in London.
Wolter states that the obelisks came from Heliopolis where it once guarded an academy of wisdom, and he confuses the Mysteries with the Seven Liberal Arts. He seems to say that the obelisks are all that remains of this Mystery school, but that isn’t true.
McCarthy spins a Masonic conspiracy theory in which she alleges that when the obelisk was moved from Egypt, Masonic artifacts were found in its foundation, leading to the Masons becoming obsessed with this obelisk and erecting it in New York. In early reports, some of the hieroglyphs resembled Masonic symbols, but much later sources started to speak of Masonic “artifacts.” Such artifacts could not have been found in the obelisk’s foundation stone because the obelisk had been moved from Luxor to Alexandria in the Roman era. Its foundation stone was long gone.
After a verbal recap, Wolter again asserts that Masonic artifacts were found under Cleopatra’s Needle, and based on this assertion he builds a fictitious hypothesis that the pyramid builders were ancient Freemasons deeply connected to the Founding Fathers of America. To that end, he calls his wife Janet to ask her what she can find about the obelisk’s location. She connects Wolter to Brendon Green, a Freemason based in New York, whom he “contacts” via staged text messages for an afternoon meeting in Brooklyn, illustrated with a block-by-block map of Wolter’s amazing adventure across the urban jungle.
Green gives a potted history of how Henry H. Gorringe, a Freemason, arranged for the obelisk to be transported from Alexandria to New York (he cut a hole in the side of a boat to get it on board), and Wolter ties William Vanderbilt’s funding of the obelisk’s journey to the last of the Vanderbilts still in the public eye, Anderson Cooper. Rather than ask Cooper whether William Vanderbilt was a Freemason, the two men speculate that he must have been even though there is no evidence to support the claim.
After the men gape in awe at the engineering involved in transporting the obelisk, we go to commercial with nothing more than some gaseous speculation about Freemasons masquerading for an investigation.
After an on-screen recap—which now corrects the “artifacts” found beneath the obelisk to “symbols”—Wolter recaps the show verbally, during which he asserts that the Freemasons were responsible for founding America. Wolter is still speaking to Green, and he tells Green that “artifacts” were found beneath the obelisk, and Green agrees. The Freemasons make mention of this, but they didn’t seem to consider it anything extraordinary. (In fact, the Masons cautioned that this “does not mean that Masonic Lodges existed in ancient China or Egypt.”) Nor does it make much sense since the obelisk had been moved to Alexandria in Roman times; therefore, the tools are more likely those of the Roman engineers than the ancient Egyptians.
Wolter babbles about solar and astronomical symbolism before asking about Masonic symbolism on the Great Seal of the United States. He wants to know about the unfinished capstone on the pyramid, and he suggests that the Eye of Providence is actually the Eye of Horus, from Egyptian faith. The two men agree that the pyramid “takes us back to Egypt.” But Green took a “vow of secrecy” that prevents him from sharing Masonic secrets with Wolter, so Wolter returns to the Washington Monument investigation from Season Two to repeat his false claims about the secret symbolism of Washington, D.C.’s street grid. Wolter believes that Cleopatra’s Needle has the same connection, and his wife dutifully informs him by telephone that the monument’s position was selected by William Vanderbilt. Wolter’s wife “discovers” that the Vanderbilts built Grand Central Station and commissioned its famous astronomical ceiling.
After a recap, Wolter takes us to Grand Central Terminal and notes that the constellations were painted in reverse (for the most part), except for the constellation of Orion. Wolter uses his branded tablet computer to read emails from Janet about further obelisks in New York, the Thomas Addis Emmet Obelisk and the Worth Obelisk, which form a line roughly similar to the belt stars of Orion. I just know he wants to say they are aligned that way. Unfortunately, Janet Wolter is cherry-picking: there are several more obelisks in New York City, which would ruin the alignment. Wolter connects the Emmet Obelisk in front of St. Paul’s Chapel to the Freemasons, and we go to commercial.
After an on-screen recap, Wolter travels to Worth Square to look at the 1857 Worth Monument, which was designed by James Goodwin Batterson, the designer of Washington’s Masonic Temple, to stand above Mexican-American war hero Gen. Worth’s grave when his body was returned to New York from Texas, where he died in 1849. Wolter now makes the three obelisks into a map of Orion’s Belt, because the three obelisks are not in alignment, but the distances are off. They don’t form a perfect correlation to Orion’s belt. I don’t have a handy map, though, to pull this together.
But he’s saving this for the grand revelation at the end of the show.
Instead, we waste time looking at the accidental alignment of Manhattan streets with the setting sun. Even Scott Wolter recognizes that this alignment is a coincidence.
After another recap, Wolter is back at his lab talking with Cari Marryman, a designer who has laid out various Manhattan monuments (“not to scale”) on a map of New York City. These she removes and replaces with models of the obelisks. Wolter declares these obelisks Orion’s belt, and he then asserts that the Giza pyramids are also aligned with Orion’s Belt, which was Robert Bauval’s Orion Correlation Theory, which even its great supporters—like Graham Hancock—now concede do not form a mathematically perfect correlation but a “symbolic” one. Wolter asserts that the obelisk alignment “points” to the Statue of Liberty, which he asserts (as per season 1) that the statue is the goddess Isis and therefore the star Sirius. No support is offered for any of this, and no effort is made to show that the “alignment” has a close mathematical relationship to the Orion belt stars. Nevertheless, Wolter is convinced that the alignment “proves” an Egyptian connection to Freemasonry.
As you can see form the map below, the alignment isn’t really close. (North is up.)
It's also not very good when I ignore scale and directions altogether and just try to fit them. I would have expected more precision.
Now how did they know that the Statue of Liberty would go on Liberty Island when the first obelisk went up a century before? IT'S ALL A PLOT!
Oh, and the real reason the obelisks are in a rough line? Each was most likely independently placed as close as was practical to Manhattan's central axis.
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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