Although I’m not particularly interested in modern UFOs, I am interested in the crazy-quilt of conspiracy culture that surrounds them. That’s why it was disheartening to see that Micah Hanks published an article yesterday in which he and ufologist Stanton Friedman commiserated about how they are the only true skeptics, while those who do not agree that there is evidence of flying saucers are “debunkers” whose minds are closed. The thrust of the article, however, was a rant about Wikipedia, which Hanks complained is wrong to reject evidence from unreliable sources. He and Friedman suggest that hoaxes and disinformation are worthy of inclusion because they might contain “a grain of truth” which true skeptics like them can discern. This strikes me as essentially arguing that historical fiction like Ivanhoe should be used as source for medieval history because Sir Walter Scott was just so good at doing research.
Hanks joins a chorus of unhappy fringe figures in feeling that Wikipedia is too unfriendly to speculative ideas. If your critical discernment is so fine, produce the actual facts rather than complaining that Wikipedia is too dogmatic.
I also saw this terrible press release from the Cambridge University Press this week that claimed a new book is innovative to look at atheism in Greek and Roman times and arguing that few today are aware that atheists existed before the “modern” period. Who thinks that? How could anyone not know there were atheists before the Enlightenment? Even the Bible admits as much: “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God…” (Psalm 14:1). Socrates was tried for atheism! While I understand the impulse to puff up a new book, the marketing is rather insulting to the presumed audience for the text.
Anyway, to move on to today’s topic…
If you think we don’t have enough people claiming to be the “real-life Indiana Jones”—including Graham Hancock, Scott Wolter, David Childress, Giorgio Tsoukalos, and many others—we have another candidate to add to the rogue’s gallery: Graham Phillips uses the passive voice to claim others so describe him on his official website. Phillips is among the lesser lights of fringe history, but a prolific author who has covered many of the genre’s most popular topics. His books include one about a comet that destroyed prehistoric civilization, one about the Templars finding the Ark of the Covenant, one that attributes Atlantis and the Exodus to the Thera eruption, and a bunch of other repeats of popular fringe ideas.
Regular readers will recall that Phillips is a friend of Andrew Collins and appeared a while back on Yesterday TV and AHC’s Forbidden History to claim that he had personally found the Holy Grail in Shropshire, that he also found the Staff of Moses, and that Merlin discovered America.
His newest book is The Lost Tomb of King Arthur, which Inner Traditions has made available for review pending its forthcoming publication this spring. Lost Tomb is a rewrite and update of his 1992 book on King Arthur in which Phillips promises to reveal the location of King Arthur’s grave and prove that he is a real historical personage. To do so, he starts by devoting a lengthy note to explaining why he rejects the way “academics” discuss dates and time periods. He doesn’t like the Common Era designation, preferring the historical BC/AD, and he also doesn’t like that “academics” don’t use the term Dark Ages very much either. He concludes by misinforming readers about how centuries work, mistakenly saying that 1200-1299 is the “thirteenth century,” instead of the correct years of 1201-1300, and so on. He mistakenly believes that the first century was only 99 years long, giving it as “AD 1 to AD 99” instead of 1-100 CE. The editors at Inner Traditions either don’t know or don’t care that he is wrong.
The book proper begins with Phillips berating “academics” yet again for failing to join forces to find King Arthur’s corpse, arguing that “historians, literary scholars, folklorists, and archaeologists seldom consult one another, let alone work together,” which he knows from his extensive involvement in not doing any academic work whatsoever. Since his disapproval of “academics” also appears in his official biography, it seems that this will be a recurring theme, despite the fact that he happily raids scholarly works to concoct his ramshackle arguments.
The first chapter rehearses, selectively, the famous incident of the discovery of Arthur’s bones at Glastonbury in 1191. Phillips leaves out some details, like the fact that the bones allegedly belonged to a giant (Giraldus, Liber de Principis instructione, Distinctio I, folio 107b) and is hesitant to conclude that the monks of Glastonbury intentionally hoaxed the find, at least until he’s strung out a whole chapter from a discussion that might have passed in a sentence or two. The monks needed money to repair their ruined abbey after a fire in 1184, and famous relics attracted pilgrims who would give cash. Not coincidentally, the bones turned up right when money was tight, after their earlier “discoveries” of St. Patrick’s bones and St. Dunstan’s bones at the abbey were debunked by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The second chapter devotes most of its space to explaining that the Round Table displayed in Winchester is thirteenth century copy and not Arthur’s own. The remainder of the chapter explains why various tourist cites claiming to be the real Camelot could not be, along with the author’s lament that “the publication of my research made little difference” in the popular perception of Camelot’s true location. He concludes that Camelot was a name invented by Chretien de Troyes, and possibly not relevant to the Arthur myth.
The third chapter explores the sword Excalibur, to no great effect since he is tracing a folktale and not a historical event. But in looking for the “pagan” truth behind the story, he makes this silly statement derived from the fringe history in which he soaked:
…the traditional date of the birth of the sun god Sol Invictus became Christmas, the birth of Christ; temples to the moon goddess Diana became shrines to the Virgin Mary; and the regular bull-blood-drinking feasts to honor the god Mithras were replaced by the weekly Mass of the Eucharist…
While he bases this on Gregory’s letter to Melitius (Bede, Ecclesiastical History 1.30) suggesting that conversion works better if pagan rites are recast in Christian guise, I need not remind regular readers that the Mitrhaic contentions finds no basis in fact (derived, ultimately, from an unrelated Christian text of Prudentius, about Cybele, not Mithras, through a mistake made by Frazer in the Golden Bough), while the Sol Invictus connection to Christmas is widely disputed as well.
Through this, Phillips asks whether St. Paul’s in London once had a pagan sacred stone, the one associated in myth with Excalibur. This has no relevance to the question of the historical Arthur, but it leads him to ask whether the anvil and stone the held Excalibur in Robert de Boron’s poem could have been a linguistic misinterpretation of the English word anvil (Old English: anfilt) and the Latin word for stone, saxum, in “mistranslating” the name of the Anglo-Saxons, whose sword it was. I’m not sure how anfilt sounds like Anglii or Angel or Engel, the recorded names of the Angles. “Might this eventually have evolved into the legend of Arthur drawing a sword from an anvil and stone?” I’d say no, but then again I’m not a “real-life Indiana Jones” who can “solve so many historical mysteries” by making things up. He conclude his look at Excalibur by ruling out traditional lakes associates with the sword, leaving him, again, with nothing.
The fourth chapter covers the Isle of Avalon, and here Phillips starts from the assumption that the island was real, and thus leads readers astray. As I have demonstrated in the past, the earliest description of Avalon, as the Isle of Apples in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin, is taken virtually word for word from Isidore of Seville’s description of the Fortunate Islands in the Etymologies. Phillips identifies Avalon with the Welsh Otherworld of Annwn because in some tales Arthur journeys to Annwn for a magic cauldron and in others the Holy Grail is on Avalon. Phillips assumes that the tales connect back to a real-life original, though there is no reason to suspect anything real stands behind them. The name Avalon comes not from the word Annwn but the Welsh word aball, or apple. Instead, he tells us that Annwn must be the island Augustine of Canterbury referred to as a large and beautiful island in western Britain that housed a church, as recorded in William of Malmesbury’s Ecclesiastical History of Glastonbury. This is, he says, the Isle of Anglesey. He suspects that votive offerings found in ancient lakes gave rise to the myth of the Lady of the Lake, and a central raised area was once an island within the island’s sacred lake, the real Avalon.
He admits to have no evidence that this is so, and the argument is fairly weak as far as it goes, because Phillips assumes a reality to each aspect of the Arthur story that the stew of myth in which the legend arose doesn’t really allow us to assume.
And that’s as far as I got today. If I get more time to read, I’ll try to find out where he thinks Arthur is buried and who he thinks Arthur was, but so far I am unimpressed. The occasional insults to the audience’s literacy were bad enough (at one point he pauses to explain to the reader why a translation of a poem doesn’t rhyme like poems are supposed to), but if you read enough of these books there is a boring sameness to them. This one isn’t distinguished by either cleverness of argument or by colorfulness of the narrator’s adventures, so it reads mostly as a laundry list of a half-formed arguments based on assumptions the author doesn’t seem to realize he is making.
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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