Early modern European travelers discovered these stories when touring Egypt and proceeded to misunderstand them in spectacular ways. Since the Sphinx was a statue in a lion form, writers like George Sandys applied Antique stories and medieval myths (specifically, Pliny and Horapollo) to suggest that the Sphinx itself was a representation of the constellation Leo. Sandys wrongly believed the Sphinx to have a woman’s head, so he considered it to symbolize the passage of the sun between Leo and Virgo, a popular claim that persisted into the twentieth century. In the early 1900s, several different writers tried to apply the precession of the equinoxes to the Sphinx to “discover” that its Leo-Virgo symbolism (which did not, in reality, exist, since it depicts a man) targeted a date around 10,750 BCE.
At the same time, the astronomer Richard Proctor—ironically, a great opponent of wacky claims about Egypt—fed into the myth by misunderstanding yet another claim about ancient times. The Oxford don John Greaves had said in the late 1600s that the Egyptians had used the pyramids as platforms to observe the stars, and he had cited for support a passage in the Neoplatonist Proclus about Egyptians taking measurements of the stars. Proctor didn’t realize that the pyramid opinion belonged to Greaves, not to Proclus. He reasoned that it was ridiculous to assume that the Egyptians scaled the smooth-sided pyramids to sit atop their tiny apexes, so he concluded that the Grand Gallery of the Great Pyramid was used as a telescope while the pyramid was under construction. In this, Proctor built on the popular conclusion, dating back to the early nineteenth century, that passages in the Great Pyramid (at first thought to be the actual halls, later the so-called “ventilation shafts”) pointed to significant stars at the time the pyramid was built, around 2400 BCE. Similar claims were made for the temples, whose axes were already understood in the early 1800s to align to the rising and setting of important stars.
The point is that the elements were all there from a stew of facts (temple axes aligned to stars), misinterpretations (pyramids as telescopes), and fiction (ancient and medieval myths) in nineteenth century literature. Sirius Mystery author Robert Temple found all this material and from it created the unique—and uniquely unsupportable—idea that certain cities in Greece and Egypt had been founded in order to symbolize the stars of the constellation Argo, whose ancient stars preserved secrets handed down from space aliens from Sirius. Although he spread his ideas across the Mediterranean, Bauval—who wrote in The Orion Mystery about reading The Sirius Mystery and taking influence from it—made the scale smaller and thus more plausible, even if the actual claim still lacked support or proof. From there, Graham Hancock, Bauval’s onetime writing partner, started to look for constellations everywhere. Hancock and Bauval resurrected Sandys’s ideas about the Sphinx and claimed them as a discovery, and Hancock and his fans and followers soon found constellation symbolism in cities and buildings all over the world, even in places where the cultures had no constellations resembling those of the Greco-Babylonian system that had only come into its standard form around 500 BCE.
And now Ancient Aliens has decided to repeat all of its previous claims about this material from its many earlier episodes about stellar alignments for this waste of time episode. Our theme for this evening is “Astrology is real, y’all!” This is depressing enough. But the show features commentary from book editor Mitch Horowitz, who believes that rich people are successful because they wish really hard and the universe magically changes in response to their hopes and dreams. So, there’s that.
We start with a discussion of the claim that rivers, streams, roads, earthworks, and fences in Glastonbury in the U.K. were intended to depict a full Greco-Babylonian zodiac. It takes some imagination to see, and there is no evidence that there are any particular features correlating to specific stars. Even with the show’s computer graphics, I still don’t see the zodiac in the landscape, not least because it requires enormous special pleading and a modern artistic eye to draw images to represent the constellations. Why, for example, is Gemini—the Twins—given as just one man?
Andrew Collins tells us that the sun passes through “twelve different constellations” each year, but this isn’t a universal truth. Constellations are arbitrary, and the number twelve exists only because there are twelve lunar months in the year. Otherwise, there was no particular reason to create twelve constellations. They are not obvious or natural.
The show then discusses astrology and its history, and the show wrongly ascribes the zodiac and the constellations to “the Sumerians” when the historical records indicate that the Babylonians developed the system we use today.
The narrator then claims that space aliens gave the “same” constellations to cultures around the world. Except they didn’t. The constellations just aren’t the same around the world. Compare the Chinese constellations to the Egyptian, and both to the Babylonian. Not similar at all. And none of these resemble the Inca practice of seeing pictures in the black spots between the stars of the Milky Way rather than in the stars themselves.
The second segment sends Giorgio Tsoukalos to Italy on yet another free vacation to a beautiful tourist destination to examine the astrological alignment of the stone acropolis in Alatri. Tsoukalos and a professor who studies archaeoastronomy claim that no sane people would build walls of heavy stones in cyclopean style, which seems to be a failure of imagination. Big stones that interlock are safer and stronger than walls of “horizontal layers” and “small stones,” as the professor says. The professor (who denies that the acropolis is Roman, as historians believe) claims that the acropolis is shaped like the constellation Gemini, though he seems to have used only selected stars, and part of the wall does not appear to align with the proposed star shape very well, even in the show’s computer graphic. I’m not even going to dignify the claim that Castor and Pollux—the Gemini twins—emerged from a “brown” egg with smoke and flame, which Tsoukalos and David Childress allege could be a UFO. It’s just not true.
The third segment discusses Babylonian and Sumerian astronomical knowledge, and the show seems to strongly imply that it believes that astrology has validity in terms of impacting human affairs and mediating between humanity and the gods. B-roll from earlier episodes about the Orion Correlation Theory decorates this segment, but there is no effort to defend the claim or speak directly of it.
This leads to a crossover between Ancient Aliens and Curse of Oak Island (both of which are produced by Prometheus Entertainment and air on the History channel) in which we see an excerpt from an episode of Oak Island in which Travis Taylor, self-described redneck rocket fetishist, alleges that Oak Island (the place, not the show) had been decorated with stones representing the stars of the constellation Taurus. This is of no interest to me, particularly since the island has only been occupied since colonial times, during which period, constellation knowledge and symbolism was well-known, even if I don’t believe that Taylor actually found any.
Somehow or another, this descends into a discussion of “multiple extraterrestrial factions,” a claim that comes out of nowhere and presumes the audience is familiar with the show’s own baroque mythology. What must a first-time viewer think?
The fourth segment depresses me by taking too literally the claim that the sunken land known as Doggerland is the “British Atlantis.” Instead, the show misidentifies it as “Atlantis,” and this leads to a discussion about the alleged reality of Atlantis and its supposed technological superiority. The show falsely claims Atlantis was destroyed by Noah’s Flood and attributes the claim to “legend” and “some” people. Plato said the island sank, not that it was flooded. There was no legend. The identification of Atlantis with the antediluvian world before the Flood is a medieval idea taken up by Ignatius Donnelly. We then go way back to midcentury ufologist Brinsley La Poer Trench and the dumbass idea that the refugees of Atlantis built monuments around Britain, including the Glastonbury zodiac, to memorialize its wonders. This segment has so any repeat ideas from earlier episodes—Atlantis, the Tua De Danaan, etc.—that it isn’t even worth repeating myself to relate them. I will only say that the show claims that the ancient Irish gods were Atlanteans and/or space aliens and follows Donnelly and Helena Blavatsky in seeing Atlantis as the spiritual and cultural homeland of humanity.
We return to Glastonbury again in this segment, and Andrew Collins tells us that in 1983 he experienced visions while undertaking a “quest” in the alleged zodiac. He said the felt compelled by his dreams and visions to visit all the parts of the zodiac, and he now believes that an intelligence beyond human lay behind his hallucinations. It’s hard to credit this with any sort of reality.
Finally—more than half an hour later—the show realizes that the Glastonbury zodiac has only one Gemini twin, and they then explain it with La Poer Trench’s special pleading that this was an intentional effort to locate the “other twin” in outer space! The show then relates this to quantum entanglement in order to claim that earth and the stars, human and aliens, are in communication now. Nice save, I guess, but it undercuts the idea that the supposed zodiac is an accurate representation of the stars. It can’t be both an accurate zodiac and a symbolic zodiac that is only partially or occasionally similar to the sky.
In the final segment we look at the star chart painted on the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Mitch Horowitz alleges that the mural—which is painted backward, in case anyone cares—depicts the precession of the equinoxes, the slow backward movement of the stars relative to the calendar over time. Horowitz falsely claims that religious iconography is related to the constellation housing the sun on the spring equinox—Aries for the Jews and their ram horns, Pisces for Christ the fisher, etc.—a claim that makes no sense once you expand beyond the Judeo-Christian experience. The show then alleges that we are now in the Age of Aquarius, so a new religion will come to the fore, prophesying the return of the Aquarian aliens. The talking heads claim humanity is becoming more spiritual and connected to the cosmos, but that seems to be wishful thinking since the show itself wants us to believe that there was a time when we were all literally in communication with space aliens through star maps and talking stones.
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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