Today I’d like to share a little bit about the European reaction to the discovery of the Mayan city of Palenque at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1786, the Spanish king, Charles III, commissioned an officer named Antonio del Río to excavate a series of stone ruins the local Maya had reported to the Spanish decades earlier. Over the course of five weeks in early 1787 del Río excavated at the site and studied its ruins. He wrote a report in June that remained in the Spanish viceregal archives until 1822, following the Mexican Revolution, when a Dr. McQuy obtained a copy and sold it to a British bookseller, Henry Berthound, who had it translated with its appended analysis by Paul Felix Cabrera. The results were… weird.
In his report, del Río notes that it was the common opinion of the time that the Greeks and Romans had discovered America and were responsible for the ruins he explored. He notes that this was the view of Father Jacito Garrido, a seventeenth century Dominican missionary, who believed that the Greeks, Romans, and medieval English had all visited Mexico before the Spaniards. “If, instead of his mere conjectures,” del Río wrote, this reverend writer had endeavored to define the period when these alleged strangers arrived, the duration of their stay and final departure from the southern regions, we might perhaps, from knowing their customs and religion, have been put into possession of some clue whereby a solution of this problem might have been effected.” Vagueness remains a defining feature of fringe ideas today!
But lest you think del Río was a skeptic, the conclusion of his report leaves no doubt that his quarrel with earlier hypothesizers was only that they failed to do the hard work of finding evidence for pre-Columbian European visitation and were content merely to speculate. He, on the other hand, believed that the bas reliefs he uncovered in Palenque were proof of Phoenician, Greek, or Roman artistic influence on the Maya: “On this account it may reasonably be conjectured, that some one of these nations pursued their conquests even to this country, where it is probable they only remained long enough to enable the Indian tribes to imitate their ideas and adopt, in a rude and awkward manner, such arts as their invaders thought fit to inculcate.”
In short, like many of his time, del Río believed that the native peoples of Mexico were too stupid to have invented sculpture or art on their own and therefore needed European tutors.
This was positively sane and sober compared to the analysis by Paul Felix Cabrera that the Spanish colonial government had him produce in 1796. Cabrera proposed that the island of Hispaniola was the Atlantis of Plato and that the Phoenicians had colonized Mexico and were responsible for Palenque. “I am confirmed in my selection of this island from among the many dispersed throughout the Atlantic, not only on account of its position and magnitude exceeding all the others, but also, from its fertility and numerous navigable rivers, and chiefly from its having been the island of the Olmeca nations.”
The connection he forges is a little complicated and relies on accounts of the supposed deity Votan (perhaps in reality a Tzeltal culture hero), who was reported in several Spanish accounts of the 1600s, where the authors closely relate him to the Tower of Babel and the story of Noah. The warrant for this appears to be a misidentification of the Chan (snake) lineage of Votan with Cham (Ham), the son of Noah. The rest of the similarities are too conflated with Biblical accounts to separate clearly. The problem of Votan is much too complex to go into here, but in 1773 Ramon de Ordoñez y Aguilar claimed Votan was the builder of Palenque, and this allowed Cabrera to identify Votan as the Tyrian Hercules (i.e. Melqart), a Phoenician deity whom he euhemerized into a human explorer responsible for colonizing America. The warrant for this in turn is what Cabrera says is Diodorus Siculus’ claim that this Hercules circumnavigated the Earth and founded the city of Alecta in Septimania. Cabrera takes Septimania to be Atlantis and Hispaniola. Cabrera, acknowledging sources honestly, got the text in turn from our old friend Augustin Calmet, writing in the first half of the 1700s, and using no citations. Calmet seems to have either made it up or misunderstood something since the passage in question doesn’t appear in Diodorus. Here’s Calmet’s statement:
Non est ergo locus ambigendi, Herculem Gaditanum sive aliquem, ex posteris, vel saltem, quempiam ex Phoenicibus, cui par esset cognomen, ultra Gaditanum fretum excurrisse, narrant enim de Hercule totum ab illo orbis ambitum maritimo itinere decursum; cui etiam Diodorus Alectam Septimaniæ urbem conditam tribuit. (source)
This prompted Andrew Collins, who recognized the lack of Classical support, to suggest that Calmet had some secret source of knowledge, and he identified Septimania as the seven (septem) realms of the dead (manes) and therefore the Seven Caves of the Underworld in Aztec mythology. In turn, Michael MacRae used the same texts to declare it Peru. Note, though, that the two sentence linked by a semicolon are not referring to the same thing. The first half refers to Phoenician expeditions beyond Gades to a mysterious island, which Diodorus reported in Library 5.19. The second sentence was meant as additional information about the greatness of Melqart-Hercules and is more accurately to be read as referring to the standard Septimania of history, not the imaginary island beyond the sea.
But if we go back to Calmet, it’s a bit clearer what happened. Calmet appears to be using a French historical geographical term that Collins, being ignorant of Latin, failed to understand, and which Cabrera probably purposely misunderstood. Calmet was likely referring to the ex-Visigoth province of Septimania, a Jewish kingdom in the western half of Gallia Narbonensis, which became Languedoc. Calmet was Latinizing the region by using a historical term, as had been literary practice in composing Latin works. In so doing, he might have been jumbling up material from, for example, Diodorus 4.18.1, in which Heracles founds a city in a land he encountered between Libya and Gades, which Calmet might have mistaken for Languedoc:
After Heracles had slain Antaeus he passed into Egypt and put to death Busiris, the king of the land, who made it his practice to kill the strangers who visited that country. Then he made his way through the waterless part of Libya, and coming upon a land which was well watered and fruitful he founded a city of marvelous size, which was called Hecatompylon, giving it this name because of the multitude of its gates. And the prosperity of this city continued until comparatively recent times, when the Carthaginians made an expedition against it with notable forces under the command of able generals and made themselves its masters. (trans. C. H. Oldfather)
Hecatompylon, according to other sources, was Capsa in Libya. Calmet perhaps confused this with myths of Hercules’ founding of French cities like Nimes (in that same region), or maybe, as was so often the case in his work, he was just careless in copying and made a mistake. (We’ve seen him mess up names and dates before, and copy uncritically from bad sources.)
It’s possible that because Septimania was Jewish he saw it as connected to the Semitic peoples of the East and thus to the Phoenicians and Carthaginians. But more likely Calmet made a spelling error from a bad or secondhand copy of Diodorus and was referring to 5.24.2, which takes place in the center of modern France:
Now in the course of his campaign against the Geryones, Heracles visited Celtica and founded there the city of Alesia, and the maiden, on seeing Heracles, wondered at his prowess and his bodily superiority and accepted his embraces with all eagerness, her parents having given their consent.
How Calmet could have mixed up central France with the southern kingdom of Septimania is beyond me, but the close similarities in content between Diodorus 5.19-24 taken as a whole and the summary in Calmet suggest that this is the origin point.
Whatever the reason, Calmet’s error fed directly into Cabrera’s emerging argument and helped propel more than two centuries of fruitless speculation, during which no one stopped to ask where Calmet got his information from, or if it was even accurate. Even Andrew Collins just shrugged his shoulders and decides that even though no evidence supports the claim, he’d just go with it anyway. And that’s what passes for scrupulous in fringe world!
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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