THE CYGNUS KEY: THE DENISOVAN LEGACY, GÖBEKLI TEPE, AND THE BIRTH OF EGYPT
Andrew Collins with Rodney Hale | 464 pages | Bear & Company | 2018 | ISBN 978-1591432999
British writer Andrew Collins opens The Cygnus Key, due to be published this May, with an acknowledgements page giving ample thanks to two cash cows whose profiteering largesse has made his work profitable: Ancient Aliens and Gaia TV. That he treats these outlets for the outré as something serious should tell us everything we need to know about the intellectual firepower behind his elaborate house of cards suggesting that civilization began with the Denisovan hominins, who, through a long memory as the Nephilim of myth, inspired ancient Egypt through the remnants of their hitherto unimagined civilization. And yet it is the preface to the book that really sets up the more disturbing layers of Collins’s narrative, one implicit in his several earlier books on the same subject but here accidentally made clear. In the fictional opening scene of the preface he imagines the extinction of the Denisovans and assigns to these miraculous generators of civilization one trait that no great godlike men can lack: white, or at least light, skin. He takes time to claim that when the Denisovans succumbed to a hypothetical Homo sapiens invasion and interbreeding, the Denisovans would have noted that “their skin [was] darker” than the improbably light Denisovans, whom science knows only from a few bones.
It’s only a throwaway phrase, but the fact that the skin color of the Denisovans is not known raises uncomfortable questions about why Collins would associate his heroes with whiteness in the absence of evidence.
Collins waves away his own fictionalization of the Denisovans’ last days by dismissing question of accuracy as irrelevant. It’s only a story, after all. Instead, he asks us to believe that the Denisovans were the giants of old, the men of renown. He implies that we can accurately recreate the Denisovan anatomy entire from the finger bone, two teeth, and a toe bone by which the entire subspecies is known. The robustness of the finger bone suggests a body somewhat like Neanderthal, but he leaps to imaginative lengths to project this into the realm of Biblical giants.
Within mere paragraphs, Collins is deep into speculative territory, claiming with little explanation that the Denisovans identified the constellation Cygnus the Swan (Collins’s own personal hobbyhorse) with the very act of creation at the dawn of time, and that they believed in life after death. There is no way to prove any of that from a few bones and a handful of artifacts. He ends the preface by claiming that he will try and the he intends to prove that the Denisovans invented civilization.
To do so, he starts with a lengthy recycling of claims about Göbekli Tepe taken from his last several books on the subject, as well as some of his online articles. This includes his unproven assertion that a small carved rock depicts the pillars of the 12,000-year-old monumental Turkish site. He is also concerned with the appearance of round holes at the site and the question of why ancient funerary monuments around the world have round holes. Besides being the easiest shape to bore through rock, Collins suspects that circles have deep spiritual meaning because eyes are circular.
He further wishes to understand Göbekli Tepe by suggesting that it aligns to the stars. To seek out such alignments, he notes that the ancient site is located close to Harran, the medieval home of the Sabians, a city of star-worshipers noted by Arab writers. He suggests that it is “reasonable to conclude that some semblance of the beliefs and practices of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic peoples of Göbekli Tepe had somehow been absorbed into the religious traditions of the earliest Harranians, the precursors of the Sabians or Chaldeans, who occupied the region through till medieval times.” It is not reasonable, merely speculative. The vast time distances involved—12,000 BCE to 1200 CE—make it impossible to trace direct lines of connection, especially about specific beliefs. When we compare almost unimaginable length of time to the known differences between Mycenaean religion in 1200 BCE and Archaic Greek faith in the same location by 700 BCE—a distance of just five centuries—and the almost insurmountable difficulties of tracing continuity even when we know the gods share the same names and the people spoke the same language, the claim that Neolithic faith can be reconstructed from Arab accounts of medieval star worship becomes deeply problematic, more so when Collins tries to pretend that the bone plaque is carved in the likeness of a future Egyptian hieroglyph for mountain and that three dots on it are three stars of Cygnus’ wing, an oddly arbitrary suggestion born of Cygnus obsession. He says that computer analysis proves that the plaque accurately depicts these stars in the correct position, but that depends, I suppose, on which Göbekli Tepe pillars you think it shows and what direction you assume the viewer is standing in. Assumptions pile on assumptions.
Based on this, Collins repeats his earlier claim that the various enclosures of Göbekli Tepe were aligned to Cygnus and that new enclosures were built periodically when the old ones fell out of alignment due to the precession of the equinoxes. This might be true or might not, but there is nothing special at the site to suggest an interest in Cygnus or a recognition of it as a constellation. As Collins himself offhandedly notes, the buildings might also be explained more generally as facing the Milky Way. He hides this amidst some self-puffery about the Origins of Civilization Conference he produces, as though it were an academic symposium and not a fringe history entertainment carnival.
Collins also tries to make the case that Pillar 43, which depicts a menagerie of animals, including several birds and a scorpion, is actually a diagram of Cygnus and Scorpius. He claims that “Hellenic” mythology identified Cygnus the Swan with a vulture, but I can find no evidence of this outside of Collins’s own books. He sources the claim to Richard Hinckley Allen’s 1899 book on Star Names, where the claim appears in reference to a different constellation, Aquila: “As the eagles were often confounded with the vultures in Greek and Roman ornithology, at least in nomenclature, Aquila also was Vultur volans…” Collins used the transitive property to apply this to Cygnus because of a Roman mistake in which a few writers conflated Cygnus with Lyra, which was known as Vultur cadens. One vulture is as good as another, apparently. Collins has a talent for stating as fact speculative hypotheses with unsteady foundations.
He builds another argument off of a similar misrepresentation of Victorian scholarship. According to his end notes, he takes from Robert Brown’s Researches into the Origin of the Primitive Constellations etc. the claim that the constellations of Lyra, Cygnus, and Aquila were the Stymphalian birds of the Hercules myth and also vultures. Brown actually wrote, speculatively, that the three bird constellations were the “demon-birds” hunted by Marduk, whom Brown, following incorrect Victorian belief, claimed to be Hercules. He also said they were kites (birds of prey), not vultures. The inferences here are even more obscure: Hyginus (Astronomica 2.8) said that Cygnus was wrongly known by the generic name “the Bird,” and Brown suggests that this means that it might have been a kite. Collins sees vultures and kites as interchangeable and therefore makes Cygnus a vulture and applies all of Brown’s speculation to Cygnus, and chooses to then further equate the “Demon-Birds” with the Stymphalian Birds… and I know the reason why.
Robert Brown, Jr., in “The Celestial Equator of Aratos,” published in the Transactions of the Ninth International Congress of Orientalists, ed. E. Delmar Morgan, vol. 2 (London: Committee of the Congress, 1893), 478-479, claims that the Stymphalian Birds are actually Mesopotamian in origin:
The constellational birds Eagle and Raven are stellar reduplications of the tempest, the Akkadian “divine Storm-bird,” Lugal-tudda (“the Lusty-king”), called by the Semitic Babylonians Zu, a word meaning both “stormy wind” and a kind of vulture. […] The Stymphalian birds are said by Mnaseas, the learned Alexandrian grammarian, to have been daughters of Ornis, i.e., the constellational Bird of Aratos, known as Kyknos, the Swan; and Kyknos is also represented as a son of Ares, and is said to have been killed in single combat by Herakles, just as Hyginus tells us that Herakles slew the Stymphalian birds “in insula Martis.” The Aryan Ares-Mars is the analogue of the Euphratean Storm-god, and so the Storm-bird-clouds, children of the latter, become connected with the former.
Granted, this is an odd thing to know off the top of my head, but I read this paper for my book Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages. Brown was possessed of the racism of his time, and he believed that Greek mythology represented a pure Aryan faith corrupted by Eastern decadence. Replace a few words—try “Indo-European” instead of Aryan—and overall Brown had an inkling of modern ideas of the influence of the Near East on Greece’s Indo-European heritage, though one much less developed or complete than today. Collins, who doesn’t understand Brown’s influences, or his errors, takes from it only what he wants: connecting Cygnus to Mesopotamian psychopomps, even though few modern scholars would support Brown’s chain of reasoning. Modern scholars suggest that the Mesopotamians saw Cygnus as a “panther-griffin” or “panther,” not a bird. Heracles/Hercules and the Stymphalian Birds might actually have an indirect Mesopotamian origin, though, inspired, as Classical scholar M. L. West noted in The East Face of Helicon, by Assyrian “bird-strangler” images, though this is speculation.
I dwell on these minor points to make a bigger one: Collins grossly oversimplifies, connects dots that are of uncertain relationship, and never admits where he is following outdated, incorrect, or highly speculative claims from centuries past. Instead, he delivers Victorian verdicts with the zeal of a convert and expects that the reader will never check the sources to see how rickety his constructed fantasies are.
Anyway, none of this is new. This material, and the succeeding chapters defending vultures and scorpions as essential elements of shamanic tradition, and Neolithic Turkish sites as practitioners of a sky-based faith seeking to send souls to the Milky Way, are retreads of material from his last few books, often with minimal differences.
The second section of the book makes an even more difficult leap, suggesting that the civilization that grew up along the Nile came to Egypt from southern Turkey, five thousand years earlier. To make this case, he devotes a lengthy passage to Helwan, a late Paleolithic / early Neolithic settlement (technically classified as “epipaleolithic,” c. 18,000-9,600 BCE) near what is now Cairo. This culture may have had contact with the Sinai, and thus the early proto-Semitic world beyond. Collins instead sees Helwan as the last stop on a daisy-chain of civilizational knowledge that defused from Göbekli Tepe down to Egypt over thousands of years. Helwan points are found in Helwan, the Levant, and at Göbekli Tepe, so there is perhaps some suggestion of a connection, but Collins overstates the degree of connection since the points are thought to have originated in Mesopotamia and spread north and south. So far as I have read (albeit not comprehensively), it is unclear if the Egyptian points represent diffusion or independent development of a similar form. Collins’s discussion is dry, technical, and boring, and yet somehow also manages to avoid dealing seriously with the question of whether a real connection exists.
The third section purports to reveal the secrets of the pyramids, which seems to have nothing to do with the subject of the book. This secret is the suggestion that the pyramids were surveyed and laid out using equilateral and right triangles from a nearby hill. My, the Nephilim’s secret knowledge keeps getting revised downward. This geometric talk exists mostly to justify Collins’s attack on Robert Bauval’s (and by extension frenemy Graham Hancock’s) Orion Correlation Theory. Collins and Hale decided that the pyramids actually represent the wing of Cygnus. This claim “sent my mind into a spin,” Collins says, because “promoting the discovery would bring me into conflict with Robert Bauval and his supporters.” Truth be damned! This is personal! Stupidly, Collins takes great pains to explain how thoroughly he was forced to research this new idea in order to justify contradicting Bauval, though he offers no such assurance that he was equally thorough in rewriting mainstream history. That is simply assumed to be wrong. Oh, and all this took place in the middle 2000s, and (like so much of the current volume) was reported in an earlier Collins book, Beneath the Pyramids (2009).
The remainder of this section is an overlong argument that the Egyptians placed their heavenly paradise at the north celestial pole, and therefore near to Cygnus—though the celestial pole would answer to the issue with or without Cygnus, however it was envisioned. He does this in order to justify the remainder of the book, in which he attempts to argue a very small, dull fringe theory: namely, that the identification of the imperishable circumpolar stars (including Cygnus during its time as one) diffused from Denisovans to Paleolithic humans and then to Egypt. It’s a rather tiny hill to die upon, but tomorrow we will explore his quixotic charge up this molehill.
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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