Note: A publisher has expressed interest in my book about the history of the Mound Builder myth and has asked for the full manuscript. However, in order to get the manuscript ready for review, I have to do some work with formatting, especially converting the footnotes into a bibliography, so I will be taking the day off of writing the blog while I work on this. In the meantime, please enjoy this rerun post from November 2012.
One weird claim from Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods has always bothered me, and I’ve never been able to figure out just where it came from. In the book, von Däniken claims that Egypt’s Great Pyramid lies at the “center of gravity” for all earth’s land:
Since there is so much to be said against the textbook explanations of the choice of site, one might reasonably ask whether the 'gods' did not have their say here, too, even if it was by way of the priesthood. But if that explanation is accepted, there is one more important proof of my theory of the Utopian past of mankind. For the pyramid not only divides continents and oceans into two equal halves, but also lies at the center of gravity of the continents.
Now, obviously this makes no sense whatsoever. In 1973, Playboy magazine tried to get von Däniken to explain what he meant by this, and von Däniken had absolutely no idea, admitting that he just copied it out of a book
I am referring there to many other writers. It is not just the invention of Mr. Erich von Däniken himself. As I understand them, if you took all the water away from the Earth and pushed all the continents together—so, for example, South America fit up against Africa—then the pyramid would be right in the middle. That’s how it was explained to me. I’ve never tried it.
This is clearly a post hoc explanation that confuses gravitational center with geographic center, and many writers after von Däniken have tried to justify it with recourse to Mercator project maps skewed to put the pyramid at the center of an X formed by lines crossing from Africa to Tasmania and Kamchatka to Patagonia. But, as mentioned, this has nothing to do with gravity. This claim does not appear in James Bonwick’s exhaustive catalog of pyramid theories, written in 1877, so it must be a modern invention or misconception, whose source I will soon reveal.
Since the claim has no basis in science, most skeptics have been content to let it go as more ignorant blathering from an uninformed writer. Nevertheless, it continues to be repeated by alternative writers even today, including, recently, Allen Austin in the self-published The Middle of the Earth (2011) and Ryszard Chorosy and Lucyna Lobos-Brown in The Cleansing of the Earth: 2012 (2009) (a vanity press book which actually plagiarizes von Däniken word-for-word for several pages without credit). A few alternative writers state that the claim derives from Joseph Seiss’s 1884 book The Gospel in the Stars, but this book does not include the claim and instead merely summarizes Piazzi Smyth’s pyramid silliness from Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid.
Seiss’s earlier book, Miracle in Stone (1877) seems a more likely source. There he writes:
And as these great old architects measured the earth, so they also weighed it. As nearly as can be computed, their pyramid is the even one thousand billionth part of the weight of this whole earth-ball of land and sea. The gravity of the entire mass of what they built needs only to be multiplied by 10^5×3 to indicate the sum of the gravity of the entire mass of the globe we inhabit.
In turn, Seiss’s claims derives in a muddled way from Piazzi Smyth, who argued in 1864, in Our Inheritance, that
The specific gravity standard of the Pyramid weight-measure being the mean density of all the solid, as well as fluid, treasures of the earth,—means thus an almost infinity of things in the history of mankind; and there appears to be further an even commensurability of a most marvellous order, between the weight of the whole Great Pyramid and the weight of the planet earth; marvellous at any time on account of the innate difficulty of the problem; more marvellous still when we consider the age in which it was executed, and on so grand a scale as to demand the most untiring perseverance and liberal expenditure of funds in carrying it out to completion.
We know that Erich von Däniken used Piazzi Smyth's Our Inheritance as a key source for Chariots, though probably secondhand from summaries in other authors. The book is mentioned by name a few lines before his “center of gravity” claim, but it does not appear in the bibliography. Of course, Piazzi Smyth believed the pyramid was built by the direct orders of God as testimony of Judeo-Christian teachings.
Piazzi Smyth also made the claim that the pyramid stands at the center of earth’s landmass. He presents a chart in Our Inheritance trying to make the case, though of course it is wishful thinking.
For proceeding along the globe due north and due south of the Great Pyramid, it has been found by a good physical geographer as well as engineer, Mr. William Petrie, that there is more earth and less sea in that meridian than in any other meridian all the equator round; causing, therefore, the Great Pyramid's meridian to be as essentially marked by nature, in a general manner, across the world from Pole to Pole, as a prime meridian for all nations measuring their longitude from, or for that modern cynosure “the unification of longitude,”—as it is more minutely marked by art and defined by human work within the limits of the Lower Egyptian plain, by itself alone.
This isn’t true; a line at 70 degrees West would cross more land. But whatever.
The point is: Erich von Däniken, trying to summarize a later writer’s summary of Piazzi Smyth, has confused and conflated the two separate claims and created from them the false claim that the pyramid stands at the “center of gravity of the continents.” The two separate claims are (a) the pyramid represents a fraction of the weight of the earth when corrected for specific gravity, and (b) the pyramid stands on a line placing it at the center of the earth’s land masses. Von Däniken, understanding neither claim, confounded them and created a new claim that continues to be repeated down to the present day. His previous sentence, about the pyramid meridian dividing the continents and oceans in equal halves (an impossibility, given the distribution of land and water) is also a corruption of Piazzi Smyth’s passage. Von Däniken simply did not understand the material, presented it anyway, and confidently asserted that what he did not understand was evidence of a hypothesis he could not prove.
So, that’s sorted, and now it can stop bothering me.
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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