Let me tell you a story. It begins at a used book store, which recently received a consignment of materials from an old man who had traveled widely and collected a number of unusual books. When he died, his kids donated most of them without cracking the spine. After a researcher into the mysteries of the Knights Templar acquired one of these books, he found within a several sheets of paper. They were handwritten notes from the 1980s, detailing research conducted in a private library in Edinburgh. According to the notes, the old man, when younger, had made a copy of an unusual map found in a handwritten journal dating back to the 1500s. That map, in turn, said in a Latin inscription that it was itself a copy of a medieval original composed sometime in the late 1300s.
Unfortunately, the owner of the map in Edinburgh refused to allow it to be photographed or photocopied, citing its fragility, nor would he sell the map. Consequently, only this copy is available to review. Templar researchers were excited to discover that it records Templar visits to ancient Mexico in 1294 and 1347, just the times when ancient Mexican sources (Chimalpahin) and Icelandic sagas (Skáholt Annals) claimed that the “Men of the Temple” had traveled to the New World.
As I assume you figured out, this map is one I drew in less than ten minutes last night, based on numbers and “facts” taken from Eugène Beauvois’s 1902 article proposing a Templar invasion of Mexico. I also threw in a few intentional errors to ensure no one would mistake it for real. But the fact is that there is no way to distinguish between my fake map and the one that Zena Halpern and Scott Wolter claim is a copy of a copy of copy of an original, especially when combined with an unproveable story that sounds just truthful enough to make the gullible want to believe.
The latest twist, as I understand it, is that there is allegedly a real 1700s map from which the version shown on television this week was allegedly copied. It wouldn’t really make much difference.
I thought I’d talk a little about the strangely similar stories that underlie the promulgation of fake (or at least dubious) documents.
The closest analogy to the supposed Templar map of Oak Island is the Zeno Map, an infamous hoax from the sixteenth century. The map, which depicts Greenland and some imaginary islands, proved controversial from the start. The only copy of it shown to the public was an admitted fake. The author of the hoax, Nicolò Zeno the Younger, alleged that he had found a medieval map in his family archives, but it was decayed to the point that he had to redraw it himself: “Of these parts of the North it occurred to me to draw out a copy of a navigating chart which I once found that I possessed among the ancient things in our house, which, although it is all rotten and many years old, I have succeeded in doing tolerably well” (folio 47, trans. Fred W. Lucas). The author simply expected us to trust that he had used no modern knowledge of geography, nor any contemporary maps, to fill in the gaps in the rotten chart (the Italian word used implies crumbling decay)—and indeed to accept that such a map existed at all. The accompanying description of the Zeno Brothers’ medieval voyage the author admits to having reconstructed from memory from documents that he had destroyed.
This pattern repeats itself time and again in fringe history, where we see this template repeated.
Consider, for example, Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Smith similarly claimed to have discovered old documents, in this case golden tablets, which no one but him was allowed to see. (He used methods better employed by cartoon characters to keep his friends and enemies from seeing them.) He produced a “translation” of the plates with the help of magic lenses and then asked his followers to accept that the translation represented the unseen originals. The translation, in turn, saw itself scrutinized to tease out hidden details of history.
Helena Blavatsky followed this template perfectly as well. Like Smith, she claimed to produce a translation of forbidden documents that uncouth eyes might never see. Hers were ancient texts from a lost civilization, the Stanzas of Dzyan, which she allegedly discovered in a monastery in Asia. Once again, we are asked to accept this on her word, the original documents being unseen in a language unknown.
James Churchward duplicated the template as well, making nearly identical claims for his Naacal tablets, which allegedly told the story of Mu.
A similar story played out with the so-called Tulli Papyrus, an allegedly ancient Egyptian document that has never been seen in public. The text, supposedly written in hieratic, was allegedly “transcribed” into hieroglyphics because the owner wanted too much money for the original. The “transcription” was then translated into English in 1953 and revealed a UFO encounter in ancient Egypt. The public is asked to accept on faith that the original text really exists, and not that the hieroglyphic transcription was simply back-formed from an English original.
So why would anyone trust that unseen originals actually exist, much less change their beliefs about the world as a result? The answer in many cases is an excess of trust, but to a degree there is seeming precedent for the discovery of lost documents in translation.
The Emerald Tablet of Hermes claims to be an ancient text, though it is believed to be medieval and Arabic in origin, and it was widely accepted as ancient down to the modern era despite being known only in Arabic and Latin translation.
The Book of Enoch was lost for centuries before it was rediscovered in Ethiopia in Ge’ez translation. The difference, of course, is that no one doubted that there once had been an ancient original, and excerpts from a Greek version had long been known from their preservation in the work of George Syncellus. Similarly, the Second Book of Enoch was long known only in Slavonic translation but scholars accept that it is a translation from a lost Greek original. (In 2009 Coptic fragments were found, helping to confirm that there was an underlying original used for both translations.)
We could offer many other examples, but perhaps the closest analog to the discovery of unseen ancient texts in the fringe history tradition is the discovery and loss of an Arabic text of extraordinary influence on both fringe history and the Romantic movement.
Murtada ibn al-‘Afif composed a history of Egypt around 1200. In 1584, a copy was made, and somehow every other copy in existence was lost or destroyed. This copy, the last in existence, ended up in France, in the library of Cardinal Mazarin, where in 1665 a French scholar named Pierre Vattier translated it into French. The original was lost, and only the French translation survives. For three centuries after that, no one knew anything about the author (he was only identified in the 1970s), and there was no Arabic original remaining to back up the French (and later English) translation. The book was hugely influential among the Romantic and Gothic authors (Shelley wouldn’t stop reading it until a friend threw it out the window), and it served as a source and justification for the Curse of Tutankhamun, and an inspiration for Lovecraft’s Necronomicon—another book that (fake) legend said survived only in Latin translation from a lost Arabic original. “The Arabic original,” Lovecraft said, “was lost as early as Wormius’ time, as indicated by his prefatory note; and no sight of the Greek copy—which was printed in Italy between 1500 and 1550—has been reported since the burning of a certain Salem man’s library in 1692.”
While Murtada’s book offers an astonishingly close parallel to the fabulous lost documents we are asked to accept on faith, there are key differences: Contemporary accounts by others demonstrate that the Arabic text once existed, but even if we lacked that, the translation that Pierre Vattier produced contained details and stories that were unknown to Europe in his day, but which exactly match (often verbatim) stories from other Arabic texts such as the Khitat of al-Maqrizi or the Akhbar al-zaman demonstrate that there was a genuine text Vattier was working with.
The more doubtful modern documents lack this kind of context and confirmation—parallel texts, credible witnesses, extant fragments, records of their prior existence, etc. This is not to say that they can’t be authentic, only that they have a much higher burden of proof to overcome since there is nothing to support their claim to legitimacy.
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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