One of the recurring themes in fringe history is the way that ideas echo down the generations, repeating over time. In an article this morning, Nick Redfern illustrated the way fringe beliefs transfer from one generation to the next, with an assist from the media. Redfern describes how, when he was 13 in 1978, he and his father went to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which prompted the elder Redfern to describe an alleged UFO incident he experienced in 1952. The younger Redfern attributed to this combination of a powerful movie and a personal story his own interest in UFOs and his subsequent career in writing about aliens and monsters.
I didn’t have quite the same experience, but my introduction to the world of the weird was similarly due to the way old ideas echo down the years. My father was a big fan of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery as a young man in the early 1970s and subsequently watched Serling’s In Search of Ancient Astronauts, the 1973 NBC-TV special that introduced the ancient astronaut theory to a mass TV audience. As a result, he joined a book club that sent him a copy of Erich von Däniken’s Gold of the Gods (1973), which I imagine he must have read and thought enough of to pack up and take with him when moving into the house where I grew up. There it sat on the shelf for most of two decades, untouched, until I happened to pick it up. It sits on my bookshelf now, a bit dusty, alongside my collection of other ancient astronaut books.
But I wouldn’t have picked that book out of the shelf of them if it weren’t for cable TV and its crazy quilt of kooky claims. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it was the survival of bad ideas, transmitted from one generation to the next that ended up interesting me in ancient astronauts. Rod Serling accidentally was to blame, along with the persistence of paper. I wonder how things will be different in the future when all the “old” things are eBooks that have resolved themselves into an unreadable digital dew.
This isn’t really related, but I found this interesting couple of paragraphs in a Victorian book about American archaeology written by the politician, minister, and popular writer John Denison Baldwin, who treated some of the questions of diffusionism with respect to the Phoenicians in America. It’s amazing how little the arguments have changed in 150 years, right down to the whiteness of the civilizers:
The known enterprise of the Phoenician race, and this ancient knowledge of America, so variously expressed, strongly encourage the hypothesis that the people called Phoenicians came to this continent, established colonies in the region where ruined cities are found, and filled it with civilized life. It is argued that they made voyages on the "great exterior ocean," and that such navigators must have crossed the Atlantic; and it is added that symbolic devices similar to those of the Phoenicians are found in the American ruins, and that an old tradition of the native Mexicans and Central Americans described the first civilizers as "bearded white men," who "came from the East in ships." Therefore, it is urged, the people described in the native books and traditions as "Colhuas" must have been Phoenicians.
Baldwin wasn’t too far ahead of his time, though: He thought the Mound Builders represented a lost race unrelated to “wild” and savage Native Americans. “Those who seek to identify the Mound-Builders with the barbarous Indians find nothing that will support their hypothesis,” he wrongly wrote. He denied, for example, that the Europeans witnessed Natives building true mounds. He also thought that the Chinese had explored ancient America and called it Fusang.
Baldwin also wasn’t a big fan of the Atlantis theory. He said that he had a “smile of incredulity” when reading that the Egyptians were allegedly the children of Atlantis, a claim we’ve seen recycled as recently as last fall’s Magicians of the Gods by Graham Hancock. He went on to detail the reasons that only “imaginative minds” would find the Atlantis theory plausible, most notably he emphasized the distinctive differences between Egyptian and Mexican pyramids. It’s all the more amazing that Baldwin wrote in 1872 against all of the arguments Ignatius Donnelly used in Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in 1882—a full decade later! This is not as shocking as it at first seems; Baldwin was critiquing Brasseur de Bourbourg, and Donnelly owes no small debt to rewriting the French author’s arguments in English, just as Graham Hancock owes no small debt to Donnelly in rewriting that author’s two most important books as the starting point for his own Fingerprints of the Gods and Magicians of the Gods.
The same claims and the same evidence keep repeating, ricocheting down the centuries. It’s particularly galling how little they’ve changed.
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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