Today, let's look at a very interesting survival of popular tradition and ask what it means for alternative history claims. If you aren't familiar with the story of the Greek hero Perseus, I'd recommend reviewing the elements of his life before reading the following story that comes from Tuscany and was recorded in the nineteenth century as current among the illiterate peasantry.
This is quite obviously the story of Perseus, but the details are different, even anticipating Clash of the Titans in bringing in Bellerophon's flying horse Pegasus. So, if we, as Victorian scholars did, give praise to oral tradition for preserving the essentials of a tale for 1,400 years after the fall of Rome, do we also award demerits for imperfect preservation?
Edwin Sidney Hartland, in his three-volume Legend of Perseus (1894-1896), from which I took this story, traced hundreds upon hundreds of variants of the Perseus story and its related tales, collecting a spectrum of stories that revolve around the same core but differ one to the next gradually but inexorably from the Classical version preserved in the ancient authors (which wasn't consistent from author to author either).
So, if you're an ancient astronaut writer or an alternative historian, how do you deal with the fact that the stories you use to support your theories (and they have related Medusa to aliens) exist in a bewildering array of contradictory variants? What makes one version definitive and another less so?
These writers have two answers, both bad: 1) Each represents a separate incident of the same aliens performing a similar task (thus denying relationships or textual dependence). And: 2) Whichever version appears in standard manuals is by default the "correct" version (denying or being ignorant of the importance or existence of variants).
How many hundred versions of Perseus do you imagine trotted around after women who turned men to stone? Just one is needed, you might say; but there's the rub: in many variants, it isn't stone at all but something else, or the woman doesn't have snakes for hair, etc. Some of these stories are coeval with the Classical version, some are younger, and some may well be, at their core, older than the standard version. (It doesn't help that the Classical Medusa changed forms across Antiquity, from a weird animalistic monster to a beauty with snakes for hair, or that such imagery can be traced back to Mesopotamia and the giant Humbaba.) So how do we declare one "real" or establish a firm fact?
This problem isn't limited to Perseus, but extends to nearly every myth or legend used by alternative writers. Without some criteria for picking and choosing which variant to believe, there is no way of establishing the "facts" of a myth, much less any way to take one variant or another literally.
I feel strongly enough about this that I'm preparing a new single-volume abridgment of Hartland's Perseus to demonstrate just how many variations there are on even the most familiar of myths, thus greatly complicating ancient astronaut theorists' work. Hartland's book is very important and probably the most exhaustive collection of legends on a single theme ever assembled, but its unwieldy three volumes (print-on-demand OCR or scanned reprints run $30 per volume!) have caused it to be forgotten. Plus, Perseus is my second-favorite Greek hero. I think you can guess the first. (Hint: I'm named for him.) I hope to have this done by the end of the month, but we'll see. It's a really big book, and even the abridged version will run about 600 pages.
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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