Thanks to the generosity of a regular reader of this blog, I’ve received a copy of Graham Robb’s new book The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts. (Published as The Ancient Paths in Britain.) It just arrived last night, so I haven’t gotten very far in the book yet. It’s probably going to take me some time to read through it since, unlike fringe history topics, the book is a bit dense and requires some thought to evaluate its claims. Off the bat, one thing that annoys me to no end is that the publisher chose to forgo numbered endnotes in favor of having no notes muddying the pages but rather citations keyed to page numbers listed at the end of the book. While this is fine for narrative nonfiction, for a book that lives and dies by its source material, it makes it more difficult to find what’s being cited.
I also immediately noticed that most of the reviews I’ve read of the book took their material almost exclusively from the preface, venturing only rarely into the actual 300-page substance of the book. The newspapers and magazines that published these reviews ought to demand their money back if they paid people to review a book and they did little more than read the opening lines.
So, what of the substance? Well, in the preface the author outlines his interest in the subject and the shock of realization that led him to conclude that the Celts of the Iron Age (defined by Robb as between 800 BCE and 600 CE) arranged their various settlements along a grid organized by sight lines derived from the solstice position of the sunrise. Robb says that he discovered this not by observation but by using online mapping software, which troubles me some. I can’t really evaluate the claim at this point because I have not read far enough to learn more of it. I was, though, particularly bothered by Robb’s self-important claim that his discovery was so momentous that he immediately swore his publishers to secrecy and refused to share his ideas with his friends in academia, lest they be called upon to reveal these claims before… well, he never exactly says before this book was published, but that’s the implication. He said that he worried that his academic friends would have to pretend not to know about this magnificent new idea (why?) during the years between its discovery and publication.
At this point, I immediately recalled Martin Gardiner’s first characteristic of the pseudoscientist: “He works in isolation. He does not send his findings to the recognized journals…” Surely, such a tremendous discovery as the lost archaeoastronomy of the Celtic world—and by a Ph.D. scholar of some acclaim—deserved at least a cursory write up in an academic publication. In fact, in an interview, Robb said he consulted only one expert, an archaeologist, and then only about neo-Druids.
When Robb began wondering—repeatedly!—why no one else could see what he, uniquely, saw and understood, I recalled another of Gardiner’s traits: that the pseudoscientist thinks himself a genius with unique insight that no others can see, and indeed will persecute him for in their ignorance. Robb, of course, conforms in discussing how academics dismissed his suggestions of Celtic science as impossible. Whether this is right or wrong (I have not read enough to decide), the picture isn’t looking very good.
Robb’s first claim is that the Via Heracles, a semi-mythic path stretching, according to Robb, in a straight line from the Sacred Promontory (near Cape St. Vincent) on the Portuguese coast to the Alps, is an Iron Age Celtic creation and that Celtic settlements are aligned along its path in a way that is not coincidental. He provides a map showing this straight line along with several settlements along it, six of which are named Mediolanum, a Gaullish word meaning “middle of the plain” (as in the center of farmland), but which he takes to mean “middle earth,” as in the plane suspended between heaven and hell, the Midgard of the Norse-Germanic religions. He provides no citation or explanation of why we should favor his interpretation, and in fact he uses the passive voice—“is thought to be related” to avoid mentioning sources at all. I confess I am at a loss as to where the information came from. Theodor Hertzl Gaster mentioned the idea in Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament (1975), but otherwise I have been unable to find evidence of this version; every other source I consulted names it as the middle of the plain.
As for the map, while it is interesting, it is also incomplete. It shows several settlements along one line, but even at Robb’s chosen scale, the settlements are not precisely aligned but rather within a reasonable distance from it. The map also leaves me unable to gauge its accuracy because it does not include other Celtic settlements. Surely there were more than fourteen Celtic settlements in all of Iberia and southern Gaul. Do these others fall along the line or other lines? Or is this line simply a best fit line among some settlements? Obviously, they are conditioned on accepting an alignment to the Sacred Promontory, which began as a Neolithic rather than an Iron Age ritual site. The Greeks founded a temple of Heracles there and though the land had been ruled by serpent people before them. Of the fourteen settlements shown, just from the map four can be explained entirely by their location on the French coast, and a fifth at the conjunction of two rivers. A line can be drawn from the Sacred Promontory to the southern coast of France, but that’s a fact of geography, not archaeoastronomy. It is not clear archaeologically that the Celts were present in all the lands Robb cites at the origin point for his alignment, 800 BCE. In fact, the third figure of his book shows Celtic settlements in Iberia, and of the dozens shown, only one is on the line.
As we move deeper into chapter one, Robb makes a series of unacknowledged claims that are, frankly, a bit difficult to identify and tease apart. The first is the assumption that the Celtic peoples from Iberia to the Alps shared a coherent set of myths, sciences, and idea across boundaries of time, space, language, and culture. Robb himself concedes that the Celts were not a single ethnic group but many, with similarities of culture, so it is not clear at this point in the book how he sees these various groups working together across time and space to construct a sacred landscape during the same centuries when the Phoenicians and Greeks were colonizing the same territory.
The next claim is that all of these Celtic groups had a hero figure who was broadly parallel to the Greek Heracles, the Roman Hercules, and the Phoenician Melqart, all of whom were supposedly identified with him. This is the warrant for the next claim, that the Via Heracles is a Celtic path in honor of this god. In turn, Robb uses this to claim that he, apparently uniquely, has been able to reconstruct this Celtic Heracles’ myth by piecing together pieces of Heracles myths from ancient texts. This is very much an interpretation, and I am not sure how we can weave these disparate pieces together. Robb does not clearly differentiate the ancient material from his own weaving together of the same, based primarily on the Greek myth of Heracles’ theft of Geryon’s cattle, a myth almost certainly known in Greece before the Greeks colonized Iberia in the 700s BCE and derived from old Indo-European cattle-rustling myths.
Here are some of the texts Robb cites (in standard translations linked below), but does not quote, in manufacturing a reconstructed story of “Gaulish Heracles”:
But the inhabitants of those [Celtic] countries affirm this beyond all else, and I have also read it inscribed upon their monuments, that Hercules, the son of Amphitryon, hastened to destroy the cruel tyrants Geryon and Tauriscus, of whom one oppressed Spain, the other, Gaul; and having overcome them both that he took to wife some high-born women and begat numerous children, who called by their own names the districts which they ruled. (Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman Antiquities 15.9.6)
It goes on for many more citations, but I think you begin to get the picture. He has combined, seemingly at will, various Greek myths about Heracles’ journey in the west and attributed all of them to a preexisting Celtic myth. Aside from Ammianus Marcellinus’ passage, I don’t see any clear evidence for why we should concur with this, since the Greeks are well known to have imposed their mythology on peoples they encountered, and the Heracles myth, most scholars believe, preexisted the Greeks’ encounters with Spain and Gaul. Just as the Greeks applied a sub-Mycenaean Argonaut myth of the fictional land of Aea to newly-discovered Colchis, they also stretched Heracles’ adventure with Geryon (which in Hesiod c. 700 BCE is in the mythical Erytheia in the imaginary farthest West) to the newly-found geography of the West, with Stesichorus first identifying Erytheia with Tartessus in Iberia, an apparently non-Celtic land.
Robb does not deal with the Greek influence and instead declares that these passages refer to “a tribal chief, sometime in the late Bronze Age, who grew rich through cattle-rustling, or a warrior-king who pacified prehistoric tribes…” This kind of euhemerizing is rather simplistic and plays into Robb’s conviction that the Celts were scientists and truth-tellers; even their myths, he claims, are based not on flights of fancy but on real history. The table of contents does not indicate a further search for the historical Heracles.
This wouldn’t be so much of a problem except that this reconstruction needs to be true to support the claim that his version of the Via Heraclea is an Iron Age Celtic construction. He bases the claim on Pseudo-Aristotle’s third-century BCE text “Wonderful Things,” in which a safe-passage route called the Road of Heracles is described. “They say that there is a road called ‘the Heraclean’ from Italy as far as the Celts, Celtoligyes, and Iberians, through which, if a Greek or native travels, he is guarded by the inhabitants, that no harm may befall him; and that they exact punishment from those through whom such harm comes” (85). There is no indication this is a solar path.
The trouble is that the historical Via Heraclea was not a straight line across Spain but rather a road that dipped farther south along the Mediterranean coast, according to most scholars, who see it as being roughly the same as the Via Domitia or the Via Augusta. Robb’s “Via Heraclea” is an imaginary road that he assumes was meant to follow the solar alignments, but which doesn’t match the facts on the ground. At this point, all he’s done is traffic in assumptions and the geographic coincidence that a line drawn across France’s southern coast hits the Sacred Promontory.
As you can see from the map, the “mythic” Via Heraclea is different than the historical one. Worse, the mythic one doesn’t make a lot of sense. If the line were meant to be a projection of a direction (northeast), it should slowly spiral northwards, away from the French coast. If it were meant to be the sun’s path, it should slowly curve as well. If it were meant to be a Great Circle line (to what endpoint?) it should also curve away from the French coast. In other words, the line only appears straight on a modern flat projection. So are we to assume the Celts believed the world was flat and used modern projections? According to Robb—in a footnote no less—each location along the path “standardized” the line according to the local solar conditions, in effect negating the curvature of the earth. He bases this on two points, the Sacred Promontory and the Matrona Pass (Montgenèvre) in the Alps. Apparently, what he did was draw a line on a map based on the solstice line at the Sacred Promontory (a Neolithic site), determined it crossed the Matrona Pass, and then back-formed a “standardized” alignment (corrected, he says, every few miles across Europe!) to fit the line.
It gets worse. Adopting nineteenth century solar hero claims, Robb asserts that Heracles was a sun god and his twelve labors (only canonized in 600 BCE by Peisander) represented the twelve signs of the zodiac (themselves adopted as a fixed set of twelve only after 500 BCE). Somehow, though, the Celts got hold of all this centuries earlier, if we follow the claims made by Robb, built the road sometime between 800 and 600 BCE and therefore centuries later Hannibal was able to use the solar god and the sun path to invade Italy. The warrant for this, and I am not making this up, is the statement in Livy that “In those days none of you thought the journey long, though it stretched from the lands of the sunset to the sunrise” (30.4). This he takes for a reference to the solstice alignment of the Via Heraclea, rejecting the mainstream idea that it meant poetically a long way from west to east. He reads this in conjunction with Polybius, who wrote that the Carthaginians failed to ask the Celts how to cross the Alps; instead gave out the story that “some hero appeared and showed the road” (3.48). Robb wants us to believe this statement is confused and that instead Hannibal was privy to an ancient cult tradition and followed the Celtic Heracles—the “hero”—along the Via Heraclea. The Greek word used, however, is not restricted to the meaning of demigod and could mean a brave man, and in this case probably referred back to the first clause of the sentence, suggesting that a Celt bravely decided to point the way, if only to get the army out of the Celtic lands.
Perhaps later chapters will improve on this and offer a better explanation, but so far, this is not going so well. I can’t quite get past the idea that Robb had extrapolated from a quirk of geography (that the Sacred Promontory and the Col de Montgenèvre, the lowest pass of the Alps, can be connected along a straight line approximating the solstice line) the idea that the Celts knew of this, made use of it, and created an entire landscape of cosmic geography based on it. I don’t doubt that the Celts had ideas about geography and may even had sophisticated ways of reckoning distance and direction across the landscape, perhaps even using solar lines, but I will need more to be convinced that they produced a perfectly accurate map of Western Europe and plotted their settlements in accordance with faultlessly corrected solstice lines. Did the Celts of the Alps even know there was a Sacred Promontory in Portugal?
Overall, the opening pages of The Discovery of Middle Earth remind me of Robert Bauval’s The Orion Mystery. There’s the same claim that an expert in one field (engineering for Bauval and French literature for Robb) has made an astonishing astronomical alignment discovery based on computer software and unique interpretations of myth. There’s also the same veiled praise for fringe ideas (ancient astronauts for Bauval and ley lines for Robb) that inspired the supposedly astounding new idea.
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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