Ancient astronaut theorists (AATs) are constantly telling us that by reading mythology, they can intuit hidden truths about ancient history, namely that aliens came to visit. I thought it would be instructive to look at this process in action in the ancient astronaut theory and also in an actual scholarly theory that revolutionized mythological studies 80 years ago this year.
In 1932, Martin Nilsson delivered a set of lectures that became The Mycenaean Origin of Greek Mythology. This book overturned hundreds of years of scholarly consensus about Greek mythology and did so by analyzing ancient myths.
Nilsson reviewed Greek mythology and discovered a remarkable set of coincidences. The place names that occur most frequently in Greek myths were not directly correlated to the most populous areas of the Archaic Greek world (the age of Homer), but instead reflected major population centers many centuries earlier, during the Mycenaean era. Further, Nilsson noted that the names of the earliest Greek heroes seemed to reflect a different linguistic construction than those of later Classical Greek names, typically ending in –eus, such as Perseus, Odysseus, etc.
As a result, Nilsson concluded that what we take for “Greek” mythology was not, as had been traditionally assumed, a relatively late invention of the century or two before Homer (c. 950-750 BCE) but instead derived, albeit in distorted and altered form, from Mycenaean religious beliefs and practices (c. 1600-1200 BCE).
AATs also review mythology and claim that they can use the stories contained therein to make historical claims. AATs view mythology as essentially true stories that preserve somewhat distorted memories of extraterrestrial visitation. (If, instead, you are an alternative archaeologist, replace “aliens” with “Atlantis/lost civilization.”) According to AATs, by examining mythologies from around the world and cataloging instances of flying deities or sky gods, the reality of UFOs descending from on high can be ascertained.
So What’s the Difference?
Superficially, these two uses of mythology seem similar. Both take mythological stories as they appear in the present and use them to obtain information about events centuries or millennia earlier. Both claim that historical information about the deep past is encoded in myth.
But this is where the similarities end.
Nilsson’s claims were based not just on reading myths but also on archaeological evidence. When he claims that cities mentioned in ancient myth are correlated with Mycenaean settlements, archaeological evidence supported him. Crucially, Nilsson was able to use his theory to predict that based on it prominence in myth, a major Mycenaean settlement would be found at Pylos, a site that in 1932 had not been excavated. When it was uncovered in 1952, not only did it turn out to be a major Mycenaean center, it also produced the richest trove of Linear B tablets ever found in Greece.
Similarly, Nilsson’s theory allowed him to conclude, against the beliefs of most 1930s scholars, that the Mycenaeans spoke Greek. The decipherment of Linear B two decades later proved this was in fact the case and did one better: It also confirmed the existence of Greek gods like Zeus, Hera, and (unexpectedly) Dionysus in Mycenaean times.
Contrast this with the ancient astronaut theory. Though ancient astronaut theorists discuss both mythological and archaeological evidence, there is no independent connection between these lines of evidence. No myth of a flying chariot has ever led to the discovery of an extraterrestrial space ship; there is no statistical correlation between archaeological constructions AATs deem “anomalous” and myths of space gods. In other words, the ancient astronaut theory lacks the deep, structural connections of Nilsson’s theory.
It also lacks any predictive value. Nilsson could predict where Mycenaean sites would be discovered, and he anticipated the contents of the Linear B tablets. No ancient astronaut theorist has ever predicted the discovery of a site, nor its contents, nor the contents of undiscovered ancient texts and had that prediction borne out by evidence. If the ancient astronaut theory were true, we should be able to say that an extraterrestrial-influenced site should be found at location X, and it should have artifact Y and texts that state Z.
But the ancient astronaut theory allows for no such predictions. This is why Nilsson's theory, which in its day was radical, was almost immediately recognized as true and enjoys near unanimous scholarly support while the ancient astronaut theory has failed to win scholarly adherents after more than half a century of "work."
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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