In 2003, Dan Brown breathed new life into the claim that Jesus fathered a Holy Bloodline of Grail Kings with his international bestseller The Da Vinci Code, and in 2009 he sparked new interest into claims that the Freemasons were hiding a religious secret amidst the monuments of Washington, D.C. You will, I trust, recognize these claims as embedded in the fabric of America Unearthed, whose first season roughly paralleled the Da Vinci Code (and explicitly referenced the parallels), and whose second season is filming this week in Washington, quite possibly in search of (sigh) Freemason mysteries. Therefore, I have a passing interest in Brown’s newest thriller, released yesterday, Inferno, which takes for its inspiration a portion of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Let’s stipulate that Brown’s Inferno is a work of fiction, and despite its prologue’s spurious claims to factual legitimacy (a common conceit more popular in the Gothic era), anything presented in the book is, by definition, fictitious and cannot therefore be criticized as some did with the Da Vinci Code for fabricating or manipulating facts.
That said, one of the silliest thing in the book, according to one review I read (I have not yet finished the novel to confirm this myself) is perhaps the claim that the international symbol for biohazards, a set of three almost complete circles overlapping a smaller, finished circle, is in fact a code for the three heads of Satan nibbling on sinning traitors at the base of Dante’s hell. This is only slightly more plausible than Scott Wolter’s idea that the Nova Scotia flag contains a Templar code marking the spot where the Jesus Bloodline came to America.
It’s a fairly well-known fact that Dante’s vision of hell was drawn largely from the Greco-Roman version of the Underworld, and one of the concepts Dante brought to the Inferno from Antiquity was the idea of the “Gates of Hell,” a concept found among the Greeks and Romans as well as Near Eastern peoples going back to the Sumerians. It is this concept that interests me because it suggests that ancient peoples did not have the sophisticated understanding of science and space aliens that ancient astronaut speculators tell us.
For Dante, Hell was fairly clearly in the center of the earth, with Satan occupying the exact center. But for the peoples of Antiquity, the Underworld sat beneath a flat earth. How can we know this? The Sumerians and their successors in Babylon believed that the sun passed through the underworld gates in the west each night and served in the dark hours as the judge of the underworld, returning in the morning through the eastern gate of dawn (Sumerian fragment known as "Sumerian Underworld" and Enuma Elish 5.9-11). Obviously, if the ancients thought the world were round, they could not have envisioned a night job for the sun, or envisioned him as passing into the underworld. This concept carries over, in modified form, into Hesiod, who was influenced by Near Eastern myths. For him, there is a single great bronze threshold to the underworld. While the Greek sun does not descend and rise (taking instead a golden cup across the River Ocean at night), Hesiod does have Night and Day “draw near and greet one another as they pass the great threshold of bronze: and while the one is about to go down into the house, the other comes out at the door.”
But why should the sun, or night and day, need gates to travel from plane to plane? That is where things get interesting. It’s because the ancients believed that the plane of the earth was covered with an impenetrable dome accessible only via specific gates cut into it. For the Babylonians, this dome was made from the flayed hide of Tiamat, the cosmic chaos monsters slain by Marduk and set up over the earth, punctuated with gates. Many scholars believe that since the Sumerians claimed the sky dome had a zenith and that tin was the “metal of heaven” that they believed the sky to be a tin dome. Outside this was an all-encompassing ocean.
The writers of the Hebrew Bible, drawing on Near Eastern myths, also believed that the sky was some sort of dome holding back cosmic waters (Genesis 1:6-8). In the Flood narrative, gates in the sky open to let in those waters (Genesis 7:11). In the Jewish apocryphal literature, we hear speculation about whether the heavenly dome is made “of clay, or of brass, or of iron” (3 Baruch 3:7).
For Homer and the early Greeks, the sky was also a gigantic metal dome, either of bronze (Iliad 17.425) or iron (Odyssey 15.329). This is why gates were needed to reach the underworld below: one could not simply keep traveling to the edge of the earth and jump off. Instead, one had to either pass through the bronze gates of day and night at the edge of the earth, or pass through holes in the earth itself to pass to the plane below, as Heracles, Orpheus, and Theseus did in their journeys to the underworld, a type of adventure called a catabasis.
I’ve mentioned before that this belief strongly suggests that no aliens came to teach the ancients about astronomy or geology. Had they done so, we should expect mythology to reveal some understanding of outer space, or a round earth, or that the stars are not tiny lights suspended from an iron dome on cables, as the Egyptians believed. Where did Zecharia Sitchin think that the ancients imagined all those Sumerian rocket ships flying off to?
Such beliefs equally belie the claims of alternative historians who argue for a prehistoric cult of scientifically advanced priest-kings from a lost civilization who obsessed over astronomy and perfectly understood the finest details of the heavenly motions. How does David Childress square his belief in an ancient global power grid, predicated on the idea of a globe-shaped earth around which the power flowed, with a belief in a solid sky cutting off the world at its edges?
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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