I often feel bad about asking for money to help support my website, so I try to be very honest about where the money goes. This morning I saw this segment from last night’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver about the way televangelists shamelessly bilk the poor to amass enough tax exempt money to run a fleet of private jets, and have the nerve to demand their congregants praise them for spending their money on the preachers’ mansions and planes, and I stopped feeling bad.
Last week I reported that Thomas Dunn Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, sent me galley proofs for Graham Hancock’s new book, Magicians of the Gods, his “direct sequel” to Fingerprints of the Gods. (Like Jurassic World, Hancock largely ignores all of the intervening sequels.) I checked the galleys as well as the press packet, and the publisher didn’t embargo the book, which means I’m free to talk about it. However, it isn’t really sporting to review it in detail before the publication date, so I’ll hold off on any comments about the specific claims in the book until I prepare and run a full-scale review when it comes out.
However, I have been driven to distraction by the fact that in 20 years Hancock hasn’t learned a damned thing about using primary sources. His references to the myths and legends he claims can upend our view of history are drawn largely from the same set of popular encyclopedias and anthologies that he used two decades ago in Fingerprints. But what really frosted me is when Hancock chose to discuss the Epic of Gilgamesh he quoted it from the N. K. Sandars’ translation (actually, he is quoting it from his own previous quotation of it in Fingerprints) without recognizing that hers was not a scholarly translation of the tablets but rather a “retelling” of the story that freely made use of material from many different documents to flesh out where the tablets are broken or damaged.
Every translator does this—I did the same in updating and correcting William Muss-Arnolt’s 1901 translation—but Hancock doesn’t understand the underlying material at all. He claims, for example, that the Epic of Gilgamesh explains the reason for the Great Flood, and he quotes the following from Sandars’s translation: “In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamour. Enlil heard the clamour and he said to the gods in council, ‘The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.’ So the gods agreed to exterminate mankind.” The trouble is that these lines don’t appear in the Gilgamesh epic. Sandars borrowed them wholesale from one of the tablets of the Atra-Hasis Epic to fill in part of the Flood story that the redactor of the Standard Version of the Gilgamesh epic chose, for whatever reason, to exclude. As I mentioned, every translator resorts to parallel texts to restore missing information, but in this case, the lines of the Gilgamesh epic are complete, so we know the redactor’s original intent. The origin of the Flood was omitted and does not appear in Gilgamesh. Granted, it is a small point, but important when one is trying to rewrite history. Hancock mistook a popular retelling for a faithful translation, and it is a microcosm of his entire approach.
That brings me to another interesting issue that is, to a degree, merely tangential to Magicians of the Gods. Fringe writers assert, as Hancock does, that the zodiac is no Babylonian invention but is tens of thousands of years old, and knowledge of axial precession—the slow drift of the stars caused by the wobble of the earth’s axis—survived with mathematical precision from lost Atlantis on down. The trouble is that the same ancient texts used to make that case make plain that the ancients didn’t understand it at all. This we can find proved through Hermetic and Platonic materials, which we’ve seen pop up a few times recently.
Last week, I mentioned that the Old Egyptian Chronicle, a Late Antique forgery claiming to represent the reigns of the Egyptian kings, calculated 36,525 years for the length of Egyptian history, forming what its author intended to represent one astrological Great Year: “The sum of these thirty dynasties is 36,525 years,” wrote George Syncellus in describing the document in 800 CE, “indicating the celebrated period of the revolution of the Zodiac, among the Egyptians and Greeks; (or the time of the return of the vernal equinoctial point, from the first degree of the sign Aries, to the same place again,) as set forth in the Genesis of Hermes, and in the Cyrannic books” (trans. John Jackson; the parentheses belong to Syncellus).
The ancients, for a time, believed 36,525 to be the length of the astrological Great Year because it was 100 times the number of days in the solar year (365.25) and 25 times the number of years in the Sothic cycle (1461 Egyptian years, or 1460 Julian years). Thus, were the stars to revolve at that rate, the spheres would be in perfect mathematical harmony, grinding on like clockwork. These numbers also helped to restore the year to its proper position since the Egyptians didn’t use a leap day, resulting in a calendar where spring cycled throughout the year until it returned to its first position after 1,461 years. Likely due to transcription errors, this number entered Arabian lore as 36,425 years, from the Harranians, who preserved parts of Greek learning.
Unfortunately, this view of precession was very wrong. That the claim persisted into Late Antiquity gives the lie to the idea that the actual value of precession was known to the ancients. As Proclus, the Neoplatonist, explained, originally mathematicians assumed that the heavens revolved one part in 365.25 every 100 years, but that the Platonists corrected this to one degree (1 part in 360) every 100 years, yielding a round figure of 36,000 years for the Great Year. Proclus is probably a bit wrong here: Plato likely developed his number by looking for a perfect analog to the 360 degrees of the circle (or the heavens) through least common multiples of the various orbits known to him, while Hipparchus, who calculated axial precession as 1 degree in 100 years, may have been influenced by Platonic ideas of perfection in massaging his numbers. At any rate, Ptolemy took it up—and fudged the data to make the numbers work—and it became the standard value used in Christian and Islamic astrology during the Middle Ages.
The correct value of precession is about 1 degree of movement in 71.6 years, or around 25,800 years. Isaac Newton realized this only in the seventeenth century, calculating it as 1 degree per 72 years, and finally upsetting the Platonic-Ptolemaic apple cart.
Granted, none of the above material proves that no one knew the correct number for the Great Year in Antiquity, but it shows pretty clearly that the greatest minds from Plato to Syncellus down to Newton had no inkling of the correct value and therefore weren’t in on the alleged Atlantean conspiracy.
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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