True Monsters finished its run last night with two episodes, one devoted to “Gods and Monsters” and the other to “Giants and Beasts.” True Monsters was produced by Committee Films, the company behind America Unearthed, and if it never really sank to that show’s level of falseness, the last two hours of True Monsters nevertheless had more than a few howlers that show producer Maria Awes is far from in command of the subject matter she claims to be teaching to her audience.
Gods and Monsters
The show goes over the highlights of Thor’s mythology, noting his strong following among the “working class,” which perhaps puts too much emphasis on modern class distinctions that didn’t have the same meaning in the Iron Age. The show also oddly suggests that Thor’s hammer was a piece of “high technology” masquerading as something “low tech.” The program also rationalizes myths of Thor’s battles with giants, saying they “symbolized the man versus nature conflict the Vikings experienced every day.” This will be important later when in the second hour the show decides that giants are now suddenly real.
A man representing the Grey School of Wizardry (seriously), polyamorous eco-advocate Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, declares that Thor’s hammer was real and made from a magnetic nickel-iron meteorite, and Scott Wolter (!) shows up to say, in the manner of Arthur C. Clark, that the hammer had an electrical spark that could have turned a meteor-wielding warrior into a god in the imagination of later peoples who confused technology for magic. This is just stupid since Thor’s hammer has Indo-European precedents and a close analogue in the thunderbolt of his Greek analogue, Zeus. (Zeus’ name is paralleled by the Germanic Tyr, both derived from the Indo-European sky god, but Zeus incorporates the thunder god mythology from an old god he subsumed long ago.) In other words, the hammer is a local expression of a cross-cultural Indo-European myth associated with the thunderbolt. There is no evidence that it was ever a real hammer.
These wild fighters were neither gods nor monsters, so I’m not quite sure what they are doing here, but the show sure got its money’s worth out of the five seconds of reenactment footage they shot, repeating it over and over again. The show makes some kind of weird claim that anyone who works himself up into a violent frenzy is possessed by Viking spirits, and they make an uncomfortable statement that violent acts perpetrated by U.S. soldiers in Fallujah were really the result of ghost Vikings possessing them.
In discussing the Norse account of the end of the world, the show depicts Odin with two eyes, which shows how careful they are. Odin traded an eye for wisdom. They then claim that Ragnarok, the fiery end of the gods, was inspired by a real event, which they link to the trendy concern about climate change. “It has some basis in reality,” the narrator said. According to the show, the story tells of the events of 535 CE, when volcanoes caused a bout of cooling. This is debatable, since there is no real evidence that the story of Ragnarok was first told then, though there really was a “year without a summer” in 535, due to either a volcano or a meteor impact. This affected the whole world, but it didn’t produce apocalyptic myths anywhere else. In fact, the Annals of Ulster referred to it only as “a failure of bread” that year. That said, it’s believed that the Norse made sacrifices of treasure in the hope of appeasing the gods and restoring sun and food. The earliest supposed references to Ragnarok date from the early 900s, and there have been plausible suggestions made that the myth was a pagan reaction to the Christian story of the Last Judgment, or even expanded from old Indo-European myth cycles. Hilda Ellis Davidson suggested a connection to volcanoes, but only in how the imagery was developed, not that the story recorded a literal event.
Of all the things to discuss about Medusa, turning her into a symbol of angry rape victims trying to take vengeance on her rapists is just not one of them. “It’s hard to see her as a monster when you know what she’s been through,” says one “expert,” as another tells us that her rape story is very similar to what American women suffer every day at the hands of men. There might have been something to this had Medusa originated in the story of a woman raped into snake-monster status in the oldest myths, but this isn’t the case. That version of the story is late, a gloss on a story originally told of the Gorgons, ugly reptile creatures. The “beautiful” Medusa emerges in vase paintings after 500 BCE, and the rape story is seemingly the invention of Ovid, in Roman times. So, while this segment talks much about Roman attitudes toward rape, it tells us nothing about the origins of the myth of Medusa, which some have linked to Greek interpretations of Near Eastern art they encountered during the Orientalizing Period.
This is yet another myth that has very clear Indo-European parallels and some well-known antecedents that the show purposely ignored in favor of explaining how the myth of Prometheus having his liver eaten each day represents anomalous knowledge of liver regeneration. Just no. Greek gods (unlike Norse gods) can’t die, so anything they lose regenerates by definition. The liver, as the show itself notes, had meaning for the Greeks beyond our modern medical definition.
Here’s another case where late versions of myths are taken for their Platonic forms. Pandora has many aspects across time. As M. L. West tells it, references to Pandora in the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women indicate that in Mycenaean and Dark Age Greek lore, she would have been a chthonic goddess married to Prometheus. None of this concerns the show, whose “experts” are more concerned about Greek attitudes toward women despite the claim that they are looking for the “true” origins of the myths. In their telling, she is neither god nor monster, so she really doesn’t belong in this episode.
The first hour finishes up with a brief look at Zeus, whose birthplace the show tries to uncover. Once again, the show sidesteps the question of Indo-European mythology and its merger with ancient Near Eastern mythologies to generate Greek myth. We don’t even hear mention of the fact that Zeus’s name is the first and greatest example of scholars unraveled the connections between Indo-European myths in the first place. He is related to the Vedic Dyaus, the Roman Jupiter (= Deus Pater), and many more. Instead, the show takes the euhemeristic view that Zeus was a real human being from the Bronze Age. They go on to say that Zeus was born on Mt. Lykaion in Arcadia, one of his many legendary birthplaces (the most famous being Mt. Ida on Crete), on the grounds that a sixth century BCE statue of Zeus was found on the mountain. “So Zeus was likely born here,” the narrator says, “though perhaps not in the flesh.” The show suggests that the god was crafted from deifying real-life kings around this mountain. Seriously?! For crying out loud, Zeus is attested in the Mycenaean Linear B tablets many centuries earlier, and his Indo-European antecedents go back thousands of years.
This show blows. But what do you expect when Scott Wolter and a wizard are your “experts” on mythology? Lies passed off as truth? Must be a History Channel show.
Giants and Beasts
The second hour continues the exploration of mythology in the hope of finding the “truth behind the biggest and baddest (sic) giants and beasts in history.” This hour is generally better than the previous one, and it has a better grounding in fact. That doesn’t stop it from playing a little fast and loose with the truth, especially when it comes to justifying belief in the Bible. Nor does it ever justify its claim that it selected the best monsters in history; I can think of many more deserving entries in the pantheon of beasts.
The narrator tells us that we are going to try to discover whether Goliath was a real person and how he became so tall. One of the “experts,” a “forensic profiler,” claims that there are “historical accounts” of what the real David did, including killing lions and bears. I presume he is referring to 1 Samuel 17:36, but it rather begs the question to cite the same passage as the killing Goliath (1 Sam. 17) to prove anything about the slaying of Goliath. The show is able to use Wikipedia, though, since the narrator notes, that Goliath’s height was 6 foot 9 in the Dead Sea scrolls but 9 foot 9 in the Masoretic text. The show leaves out that the Septuagint and Flavius Josephus also agree on the shorter height. The narrator and several “experts” posit that Goliath suffered from gigantism, indicated by his bad eyesight and weakened joints. The narrator tells us that the skeleton of a 6 foot 2 man found in a tomb marked “Goliath” may have been that of the legendary warrior. The show leaves out that the tomb in Jericho was that of a family named Goliath (on account of their height, most likely—they were all tall), that there were four ossuaries bearing the name, and that—oh, right—they are written in Greek and Hebrew and date from long after David’s time.
The segment starts with the claim that the cyclops myth derived from interpretations of the fossil skulls of the dwarf elephant, whose trunk hole resembled a single eye socket in the center of the forehead. This claim was put forward (without evidence, it should be noted) by Othenio Abel, in a text I have personally translated. It’s a plausible claim, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the issue: Did the Greeks match the fossil to a preexisting myth, or did the myth arise to explain the fossils? That we can’t know for certain, but we can be reasonably certain that the fossils were believed to be those of the cyclops. Giovanni Boccaccio reported, for example how some Sicilians thought they had found the cyclops Polyphemus’ skeleton, and it was almost certainly that of a dwarf elephant. No one bothers to mention Adrienne Mayor, who reintroduced the fossil origins of mythology in her book The First Fossil Hunters, or Sir Hans Sloane and Georges Cuvier, who were the first to propose the connection.
The segment, though, is badly produced and repeats the same information more than once, apparently unaware they had already discussed it.
This segment retells the most famous version of the Minotaur’s story, and it tries to explain the story to Millennials by telling us that it inspired the Hunger Games. The show tries to rationalize the myth in a couple of ways, first by claiming the Minotaur was a reverse of the Man in the Iron Mask, a product of the queen’s affair with someone other than Minos, hidden away and mythologized as a bull-man. Uh-huh. Try proving Minos existed first. Then they say it might have been a symbol of the bull-cult of Crete, and an archaeologist claims that the Minoans practiced a blood cult in which initiates dressed as bulls and were drenched in their blood. I am not aware of what evidence there is for that since we know very little about Minoan religion, and I don’t recall any murals depicting such a rite. This seems to reflect more on Christian views of Greco-Roman religion.
We also see some caves that they suggest might be the origin of the labyrinth myth.
The show explains what a manticore is (but not its origins in Persian lore), and it recites what the ancients knew of the creature, particularly Philostratus (wrongly given as the first Greco-Roman author to discuss it—that was Ctesias), and then we hear as a revelation that the creature is really a distorted account of the Bengal tiger. This is not a new revelation. Pausanias said it in his Description of Greece 9.21.4 nearly 2,000 years ago: “I am inclined to think it is the tiger.”
The show asks whether Grendel from Beowulf was a real creature, which might be a bit of a challenge to prove since there is no clear description of what Grendel was supposed to look like. He seems to be a Nephilim-Giant, since the poem calls him a descendant of the accursed race of Cain, considered to be the lineage of the evil Giants. We ignore this, though, in favor of the claim that Grendel was an anthropomorphized disease. Ken Gerhard, a cryptozoologist, tell us that Grendel was a Bigfoot! He suggests Grendel is a memory of Gigantopithecus, and historian Brian Regal tells us that we as humans have an “evolutionary memory” of giant ape-men. I don’t think there’s any evidence of this, and I certainly have not had any memory flashes of giants or ape-creatures.
Melon Head Monsters
We here of a Midwestern myth of a mad scientist named Dr. Crow who injected children with a substance that turned them into big-headed creatures similar to Grey aliens, except that they are inbred cannibals. Apparently the backwoods loves stories of inbred cannibals. Another version says that they are actually murderous ghosts of deformed children who have been bullied. The show relates this to hydrocephaly, and it notes that Dr. Crow never existed but it goes on to claim that there was a real basis for the legend in the horrific experiments of the Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele. Regal, though, is quite wrong that Mengele inspired the character of the sadistic mad scientist. That figure existed long before, and was a stock character in 1930s horror movies, and Victorian pulp literature before that.
We finish up with a look at whether there were human-chimpanzee hybrids. They retell the familiar story of how Stalin’s scientists tried cross-breeding humans and apes, to no result. The show concludes by asking whether it is ethical to try to create super-humans by manipulating our genome with animal DNA.
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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