Joe Rogan’s podcast made headlines this past week for what did not happen on it. Roseanne Barr canceled her scheduled appearance on the podcast, which was supposed to have been a key part of her apology tour after her racist tweets resulted in ABC pulling the plug on the sitcom she starred in. On the day Roseanne was supposed to have appeared, Rogan interviewed Robert Schoch, the Boston University geologist famous for endorsing nineteenth century views about the origin of Egypt’s Great Sphinx. The interview lasted for three hours. I will be entirely honest: I find it harder and harder to sit through such lengthy, mind- and butt-numbing slogs through pretentious fantasy. If Avengers: Infinity War couldn’t convince me to sit still for three hours, an equally ridiculous science fiction fantasia with no special effects and no action certainly would not. That’s why it took me several days to plow through it.
Schoch is not a compelling speaker. He is soft-spoken and somewhat monotone, like a bonkers Mister Rogers, and his discussions tend to lull me to sleep.
Schoch begins the podcast by memorializing John Anthony West, who had inspired him to take up the cause of Victorian Egyptological speculation, in the wake of West’s recent death. He then rhapsodizes about his moment in the sun, 25 years ago, when NBC featured him in the infamous Mystery of the Sphinx documentary that speculated about the statue’s predynastic origins. In many ways, Schoch has remained frozen there, in 1993, constantly and consciously trying to recapture the glory days when network television pumped out extremist fringe material. “I’m not trying to brag or anything,” Schoch said, but he attributes the popularity of fringe history to the Sphinx show. He claims that the program brought the truth about history to the public, bypassing “academics” that had “poo-pooed” the idea that Atlanteans from the Ice Age built Egypt’s wonders.
From the beginning, however, I was disappointed that Schoch seems unaware of the history of his own idea. He attributes his belief in a predynastic Sphinx and Valley Temple to John Anthony West, which is indeed correct, and West’s belief in it to the occultist R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, which is also correct. But he presents Schwaller’s views as though they emerged ex nihilo from amazing insight. They did not.
Schoch is aware that Victorian archaeologists spoke of a predynastic Sphinx, but he attributes their ideas to “feelings” rather than “hard evidence,” as though it were mere fancy. I imagine that this is because Schoch doesn’t read French. The ideas Schoch advocates were taken over by Schwaller from French archaeologists, specifically Gaston Maspero and Francois Lenormant, who argued in the late nineteenth century that the Sphinx and its Valley Temple predated dynastic Egypt by thousands of years and had been built by the mysterious Followers of Horus at the end of the last ice age. As Lenormant put it, in my translation:
There still remains in Egypt at least one monument dating back to the time when the civilization on the banks of the Nile marshaled its first forces and began to live. It is the temple located next to the great Sphinx and cleared some thirty years ago by A. Mariette at the expense of the Duke of Luynes. Constructed of enormous blocks of Aswan granite and eastern alabaster, supported by square monolithic pillars, this temple is prodigious, even beside the Pyramids. It offers neither a molding, nor an ornament, nor a hieroglyph; it is the transition between megalithic monuments and architecture proper. In an inscription from the time of King Khufu (4th Dynasty), it is spoken of as an edifice whose origin was lost in the night of time, which had been fortuitously found during the reign of this prince, buried by the sands of the desert, under which it had been forgotten for many generations. Such indications of antiquity are calculated to frighten the imagination. Egypt, to say nothing of the rest of the world, possesses not a single monument built by the hand of man, and truly worthy of the name, that can be compared to it as an antiquity.
The origins of Schwaller’s ideas—and all of fringe history’s views of the Sphinx—are to be found here, or, rather, in the summary to be found in Maspero’s 1894 book Dawn of Civilization, which Schwaller explicitly cited as his source. Maspero and Lenormant misread the Inventory Stela of c. 670 BCE and wrongly believed it (following a mistake made by Auguste Mariette) to date to the reign of Khufu in the Fourth Dynasty of 2500 BCE, under which belief they argued that the story told on it proved that the Sphinx and Valley Temple beside it dated back 10,000 years.
All of this, as it happened, emerged because the French scholars were well-versed in medieval Arabic pyramid myths, which they--especially Maspero—wrongly believed were accurate accounts of Old Kingdom beliefs, transmitted recognizably across thousands of years. As al-Maqrizi reported in his Al-Khitat (1.40-41), the Arab writers believed the Pyramids and the Sphinx to have been the work of antediluvian giants in the centuries before Noah’s Flood and served as a talisman to prevent sand from silting up the Nile. This, in turn, derives from Late Antique Christian efforts to square the pagan history of Egypt with the sacred history of the Bible by making some of Egypt’s great monuments into the inscribed pillars erected by Enoch or Seth or the Fallen Angels in the time before the Flood. This material, however, does not survive and can only be reconstructed from later medieval texts.
Schwaller added to the wrongheaded old beliefs only this: If the Sphinx were older than the Flood, then it had been eroded by the rains of the Great Flood, which might or might not have been the wet years at the end of the Ice Age. It was less a scientific insight than the inevitable result of marrying medieval myth with nineteenth century error. Once convinced of a belief, you see what you want to see.
West and Schoch spent much of their adult lives trying to prove a Belle Époque mistake correct, even though both Egyptologists and crackpot pyramidiots such as Charles Piazzi Smyth had dismissed the French error as a mistake before the end of the nineteenth century. (Some, however, retained the belief for a decade or two longer.)
Schoch, however, does provide a startling bit of insight into his thought pattern. He believes in his fantasies about lost civilizations and antediluvian wonders because of his grandmother, to whom he attributes his love of Egypt and his postmodern distrust of “dogma.” She, he said, was a theosophist and had indoctrinated him in Blavatsky’s ideas of Atlantis and Lemuria and cults worshiping space aliens who had erected great monuments around the world. Blavatsky, of course, had made use of Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, but also French writers, from whom she borrowed the idea of pyramids and monuments dating back before the Flood and the destruction of Atlantis. “It is unquestionable that the Deluge has [ever] been associated in the legends of some Eastern peoples not only with the Pyramids, but also with the constellations,” she quoted Staniland Wake as saying before alleging in The Secret Doctrine that the Great Pyramid was a “divine reminder” of the flood that destroyed Atlantis. (This was during a pole shift, she said! She borrowed that idea from Brasseur de Bourbourg, and Charles Hapgood stole it from there, too.) It surprised me that Joe Rogan, who acts as though he is knowledgeable in such matters, claimed never to have heard of Blavatsky or Theosophy.
I admit to being further surprised to learn that Schoch is a postmodernist with a theosophical background (though he denies being a Theosophist outright, merely “inspired” to “expand my horizons” through its literature). I suspected some of this, but to hear him say it so plainly is still shocking, if you will forgive the unintentional pun.
As the interview wore on, Schoch revisited some of his more extreme hypotheses from the past two decades, particularly his belief that a coronal mass ejection ended the Ice Age. Now, however, he is no longer as heavily opposed to Graham Hancock’s advocacy of a comet ending the Ice Age as he was a few years ago. Now, when the unity of fringe ideas has become an important part of “alternative” history marketing and moneymaking, Schoch wants to reconcile both beliefs and claim that “both” a comet and the solar event ended the Younger Dryas.
He discusses claims that humanoid figures on indigenous rock art are not meant to depict people but rather plasma formations from a coronal mass ejection. It’s perhaps an interesting scientific question, though I would tend toward the explanation that requires fewer assumptions—that stick figure people, many of which are similar to stick figure people drawn doing human activities are in fact stick figure people and not hypothetical five-pointed plasma formations. Either way, however, the existence of rock art among hunter-gatherer groups implies nothing about a lost Atlantis.
I am also a little disturbed by Schoch’s claim that the Indo-European language family took over the world because the Proto-Indo-European people were in the right place on Earth to survive a solar blast that wiped out other groups. The blast supposedly happened at the end of the Ice Age c. 9600 BCE, but the Indo-European language family didn’t spread out from Central Asia until around 4000 BCE. The long distance between those times, and the fact that Proto-Indo-European has only been traced to around 4500 BCE, renders Schoch’s claim that PIE is an Ice Age language spoken by a widespread advance culture before a “Dark Age” difficult. It smacks more than a little of old idea that the Aryans were a divinely chosen race—a claim, perhaps not coincidentally, that found its reflection in Theosophy’s idea of Root Races, including the Aryan, developed in succession by cosmic powers.
Schoch claims that Göbekli Tepe is evidence of a lost civilization and its accomplishments, even though the site, so far as all evidence indicates, was the work of hunter-gatherers. What does Schoch mean by “civilization”? The idea seems to shift as he talks, sometimes referring to cities and sometimes to science and sometimes to social hierarchy and complexity.
Schoch also believes that scholars dismiss ancient people as “primitive” in order to “build themselves up” as superior. Schoch, of course, believes that ancient people were superior in order to reinforce his own ideology of endlessly cyclical history. Naturally, he sees his own views as objective, and the other as biased and dogmatic. Schoch constantly returns to angry interactions he had with other academics in 1992 and 1993, and he seems genuinely obsessed with the fact that his colleagues back then did not agree with his ideas. He even imagines that there were conspiracies of archaeologists and geologists trying to humiliate him. To give you perspective on this, I was 11 at the time. I am now 37. Devoting so much time to these interpersonal conflicts from so long ago is inexplicable except that Schoch—a newly minted geologist in the early 1990s, by his account [update: he must have misspoken about having recently left graduate school since his PhD is from 1983]—seems to be locked into his young adult glory days.
A chunk of the interview is devoted to Schoch’s very wrong claim that there is a lock that will open a secret chamber in the Sphinx. I wrote about this at length last year and will direct you to that piece for the reasons that Schoch is pulling bad ideas straight out of his ass. He adds that he believes that the Giza pyramids were “refurbished” from antediluvian originals. He presents his ultimate view of civilization, which is indistinguishable from medieval Arab myth: before the Flood, a sophisticated culture flourished and raised great monuments to preserve their wisdom from the coming disaster. But when the destruction from the sky flooded the Earth and destroyed civilization, it took thousands of years before the ancient ways were recovered and the monuments restored. The Great Pyramid, both Schoch and medieval Arab writers said, was a monument to the Flood and a repository of wisdom.
Schoch says he is not comparing himself to Copernicus when he compares himself to Copernicus and repeats a false story that Copernicus only published his heliocentric theory on his deathbed only to have the Catholic Church persecute and suppress the idea from fear. In reality, the Church was fascinated by Copernicus’s work, a cardinal sent him a letter urging him to publish his theory, and Copernicus dedicated the volume to the Pope and entrusted it to a bishop for publication. By contrast, Martin Luther condemned heliocentrism, and under pressure to keep up with the Protestants, the Catholics eventually followed suit.
Schoch also complains about the internet because “the naysayers, the skeptics, they have access to it, too” and can write criticisms like this one that take the wind out of fringe history’s sails. But he managed to talk himself into a corner by also claiming that we need expertise to understand history but should not turn to “pseudo-authorities” (i.e., experts) because they have an “agenda”—unlike, say, an embittered quasi-theosophical geologist. So where are we to find knowledge and truth? Apparently, we are to trust only those with a demonstrated track record of working in the fringe field and complaining about being oppressed by academics. Both Schoch and Rogan, who are speaking in a live YouTube broadcast, vilify YouTube for spreading misinformation and lies. The irony, of course, is that they are right—and demonstrating that rightness with their own conversation! Schoch also promotes his ORACUL organization, which he claims will find the truth about the origins of civilization because it is free from academic dogma.
He ended with a commercial asking wealthy people to contact him to help fund a blockbuster disaster movie based on his apocalyptic hypotheses about ancient history and pyramids, money he has been trying to raise without success for several years now. Rogan concludes that Schoch’s idea of a coronal mass ejection “scares the shit out of me.” That is because Joe Rogan will believe anything that somebody tells him so long as the claimant pretends that “academics” don’t want you to know about it.
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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