On last Thursday's episode of Ancient Aliens (Aug. 25, 2011)*, Giorgio Tsoukalos made a claim that is stupid even by that show's lax intellectual standards. The episode focused on the "alien" origin of religious rituals and religious and royal symbols and iconography.** Tsoukalos argued that aliens wore space suits that were very similar to those worn by Apollo astronauts, and therefore the origin of royal crowns happened when ancient people--and I am not making this up--saw the astronauts stand in front of the sun with the light reflecting and bouncing off the helmets of the astronauts. He also thought that aliens using "flashlights" could produce the same effect artificially. Awed and confused, ancient humans then assumed the aliens emitted light from their heads and therefore imitated the extraterrestrials by making gold halos for their own heads.
It boggles the mind that Tsoukalos has such a low opinion of ancient intelligence that he seriously thinks prehistoric people failed to understand that when someone stands in front of the sun, it looks like he or she has a glow around his or her head.
How do we know this isn't true? Well, here is some ancient art. First up, a depiction of Helios, the Greek god of the sun, from an ancient temple:
As should be fairly obvious, the lines around Helios' head are the rays of the sun. Clearly, the Greeks and Romans understood the idea of the sun and how it looked around a person's head. But they are relatively late. Do we have something older? Why, yes:
Here is the ancient Egyptian sun-god Ra crowned with the sun. The Egyptians seemed to have a pretty good grasp on the concept of the sun and knew it when they saw it.
What we think of today as a "crown" differs from traditional headdresses worn by ancient monarchs. The modern crown derives from two sources: the sun-beam diadem worn by the priests of Sol Invictus in ancient Rome, which was worn by the Roman emperor in in the imperial period, and the gold circle, or diadem, worn by the Persian emperors and adopted by Constantine as a replacement for the pagan headgear. This diadem, in turn, was a metallic version of what was originally a silk ribbon that connoted royal authority and was wrapped around a conical tiara, itself derived from earlier Mesopotamian tiaras that originated as decorated hats.
In neither case did the crown "imitate" alien helmet reflections. There is no need for such silliness when there are clear antecedents from documented historical periods that prove the origins of the crown. Sol (Helios) was admitted to be the sun, so he can be no misunderstanding of alien helmet reflections, and the diadem and tiara had mundane origins in shawls and hats worn for thousands of years to, ironically, protect the head from the sun.
Need proof that the tiara was a glorified hat and not an alien artifact? Here is the ancient Babylonian ruler Hammurabi (c. 1750 BCE) wearing a domed crown while the sun god Shamash wears a conical tiara that looks like neither a space helmet nor a sun beam, but rather an ice cream cone or sea shell:
As Gwendolyn Leick noted in The Babylonians: An Introduction (2003), a wide array of hats were worn in that ancient empire, from turbans and fezzes to the tall, conical crowns of the monarch (p. 137). They were not, however, typically gold in color, nor did they represent the sun. In other words, the size and shape of the hat evolved from the need to show off and proclaim one's importance, not because an alien stood in front of the sun.
Of course we can't prove that the idea for wearing a hat didn't originate in a cave person seeing an alien standing before the sun and thinking, "Maybe I should put big gold triangles in my hair and hold them on with a metal circle." But the weight of the evidence suggests that this hypothesis can better be explained through the simple process of cultural evolution from practical hats to elaborate, impractical crowns meant to distinguish the idle elite from the common working person.
* I am basing this on published TV listings. I saw the episode on a rebroadcast on Sunday, Aug. 28, so I can't be sure it is the same one that aired on Thursday.
** Note: In this episode I saw David Hatcher Childress actually talk about "the extraterrestrials" by name, and he said that one "can't help" but think about aliens as the origins for ancient rituals. So, frankly, suck it, Childress. You are disingenuous and opportunistic and can never again claim that you don't "do" aliens. I win.
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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