This week Ancient Aliens asked PZ Myers to appear on the show, which implies that we are in for even more episodes beyond the upcoming season order. I’m a bit jealous: I’ve never been asked to be on the show, and surely I must be the leading skeptical expert on ancient astronaut questions at this point. But as Myers said, that’s probably why they haven’t asked me…
Ancient Aliens S06E04 “Magic of the Gods” is quite obviously predicated (without acknowledgement) on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous maxim, his Third Law, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The show, however, commits the logical fallacy of assuming the converse is true, and holds therefore that “Any ancient mention of magic is proof of advanced technology.” This is roughly like saying “all oranges are fruit; therefore, all fruits are oranges.” But the show does not care because: wizards! Also, the long-dead Philip Coppens says that some ancient people were essentially He-Man and mastered “the power of the universe.” Somehow, then, magic is both high technology and also the power to manipulate physics using the mind.
We open in Las Vegas in 2009 to witness a magical illusion, the disappearance of a Hummer, in order to establish a “worldwide fascination with magic” and a global longing for the supernatural. I imagine a brief still photo of Penn and Teller is a sly dig at skeptics. This discussion is not particularly insightful, nor does it go much beyond James Frazer’s sympathetic magic discussion from The Golden Bough a century ago, though Frazer, working with far fewer resources, managed to correctly understand that this was not actual supernatural power but merely a belief in it.
First up, we discuss the Eight Immortals of Chinese mythology, including Zhang Guo the Elder (“Lao”), an eccentric medicine man around whom tall tales coalesced into myth. He has a magic mule that folds up into a tiny scrap of paper and then springs back to full size with the application of water. Not surprisingly, the entirety of the narrator’s discussion comes nearly word-for-word from Chinese Mythology A-Z or some similar standard mythological summary, with nary a nod to any primary sources. “You have to ask yourself,” David Childress says, “is this white mule actually some kind of incredible alien technology that allowed him to travel around China?” Tsoukalos calls the mule a “craft” and calls Zhang an alien. David Wilcock says that the mule flies, folds into hyperspace, and has advanced propulsion technology. The original stories say nothing about flying mules. The mule walked. One would think, if they knew their primary sources, they might have been more interested in the story of how Zhang was able to regenerate body parts and restore his youth.
Next up is the Buddha! A myth that the Buddha teleported from one side of the Ganges to the other is attributed to alien technology rather than storytelling, and Tsoukalos doesn’t bother to address the epistemological question of whether dematerializing and rebuilding a person atom-by-atom would yield the same person or a simulacrum.
There is no time for that because we’re on to Merlin, whom Kathleen McGowan falsely claims is first seen in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century work. In fact, we can clearly see the development of the Merlin figure from Myrddin Wyllt, a Welsh madman and bard, whose ravings had been the subject of epic poems for centuries prior to Geoffrey. Geoffrey, in turn, authored a fictional biography that attributed to Merlin wizardly feats in the reign of Aurelius and then of Arthur. Since Geoffrey simply made up facts, there is no reason to suspect that the historical bard was actually possessed of real magical powers. That said, the stories of Merlin may actually derive from folk memory of Druid religion, particularly his threefold death, which resembles that of the Druid sacrifices found in bogs. The show lies, though, in imagining that an immortal Merlin planned the British Empire.
William Henry makes Merlin an extraterrestrial hybrid based on Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain 6.18, where Merlin relates that his virgin mother was visited in a locked chamber by an incubus who fathered the child, rather like (and quite possibly plagiarized from) some of the accounts of Perseus, whose mother Zeus visited in a locked chamber. The show refuses the obvious conclusion: If Merlin and Perseus had virgin mothers impregnated by ET, what does that make Jesus? They’ll never tell…
“It doesn’t seem that someone just made this up out of nowhere,” Wilcock says, arguing that Merlin was an alien with plans to raise Arthur to world power. Yes, it does. In fact, Geoffrey made up lots of things that weren’t true, like King Arthur’s conquest of Iceland (History 9.10). Geoffrey borrowed from pagan mythology, half-mythic medieval histories, and other sources in assembling a fictional history of England. That, sadly, is an actual fact, and even his contemporaries, like Giraldus Cambrensis, considered it so much fiction (in fact Giraldus said its lies attracted demons like flies).
Now we’re on to an Aztec obsidian mirror once owned by John Dee, who famously claimed to speak with angels in the Enochian language. Weirdly, the show prefers to repeat one time-wasting bromide after another about what people believed about magic without ever making even a hint of suggestion that magic actually did anything. People also used to believe in the melancholy power of black bile, but that doesn’t make it real. I am astonished that the show never bothered to explore the Enochian language or even hint at what the angels supposedly told Dee, for would this not have something to do with the alleged alien-angel agenda? The angels, after all, dictated several books in their language to Dee, just like Gabriel to Muhammad. (Earlier medieval scholars had similar experiences of invoking angels.) The show won’t tell us about it because the “angels” managed to reveal things about alchemy and astrology that are demonstrably false and therefore unfit for alien gods.
No matter. There’s no time for thinking! You might realize some of the problems with the show if you stopped to think. Instead, we talk about recent carbon fiber technology that produces a pseudo-invisibility shield (it bends light a short distance) as a way of introducing invisibility stories from myth, starting with Perseus’ cap of invisibility. The show ascribes this to Hades, but it is Hades’ hat only in Apollodorus (2.4.2), who puns on the words for invisibility (aidos) and Hades (Aides). In earlier versions, it did not belong to him. Oddly, they don’t seem to care for Perseus’ winged sandals, which are obviously propulsion technology.
Next the show calls Circe a goddess, which is perhaps technically true in that she is the daughter of Helios and an Oceanid and was therefore immortal. This is by way of introducing the idea of magic wands and staffs as something akin to lasers. Tsoukalos tells us that the Greeks called Circe “the goddess of magic,” which is not true; at best she was a minor goddess of magic, more frequently a witch or enchantress. The major goddess of magic was Hecate. While Circe may have originated in a pre-Greek goddess figure (as many scholars argue), she was not worshiped as one, nor did she have a cult.
Tsoukalos asserts that all myths have a core of real life truth and then asserts that high technology could somehow cause men to turn into animals, as Circe does (in Odyssey 10), Wilcock arguing that magic wands change DNA on the fly to transmute species. The lack of concern for the role of imagination is sad.
In keeping with the magic wand theme, the show next discusses Moses’ challenge to pharaohs’ priests wherein he turns his staff into a serpent, which, of course, the ancient astronaut theorists get completely wrong since it is actually Aaron who performs this miracle, not Moses (Exodus 7:10). Robert Bauval tells us that the Egyptians “understood how magic really works” which seems to imply he believes in actual supernatural power. The show then asserts that the ten plagues of Egypt are technological magic from aliens, which both Moses and the Egyptian priests were able to wield in producing frogs, blood, etc., but Moses did it better, triumphing over the Egyptians. George Noory says that magic won the day, that God isn’t mean-spirited, and therefore aliens were behind it all because God couldn’t be so cruel as to kill people. Tsoukalos simply asserts that Yahweh is a “misinterpreted extraterrestrial,” though somehow Jesus isn’t. I’ll never understand that one except in the old but officially heretical idea that the Gods of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament are not the same, a belief originating in Marcionism around 144 CE.
We get a few more paeans to how all humans really, really want the supernatural to be real, which might as well be the mission statement for the show.
The show repeats the same claims from the first few segments again, but this time with the example of an early Japanese ascetic, and then it suggests that Harry Houdini and David Blaine have extraterrestrial powers, which would cause the famous skeptic Harry Houdini to reach out from beyond the grave to bitch-slap them, except that doing so would accidentally prove them right. Arthur Conan Doyle tried that argument, claiming that Houdini had genuine supernatural powers, at which Houdini scoffed.
We finish with yet more paeans to just how badly we have to have supernatural beliefs to make us feel better about our miserable, frustrating, boring lives. It is, as H. P. Lovecraft wrote in “The Whisperer in Darkness”: “To shake off the maddening and wearying limitations of time and space and natural law—to be linked with the vast outside—to come close to the nighted and abysmal secrets of the infinite and the ultimate—surely such a thing was worth the risk of one’s life, soul, and sanity!” Ancient astronaut theorists are happy to give up their sanity for supernatural ecstasy.
Let me conclude with an interesting note: Lovecraft was commissioned to write “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” (a.k.a. “Under the Pyramids”) for Harry Houdini, a story that featured the first-person account of the magician as a supernatural hero battling all manner of Nilotic demons and gods beneath Giza, for in this story the gods of mythology were real and alive, at least until the end when it is revealed to be all a dream (or is it?). Houdini pretended the story really happened, but Lovecraft believed even the dream to be fictional, but he later worked with the magician on an article debunking astrology and a book about The Cancer of Superstition that sadly never came to fruition because Houdini died before it could be completed.
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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