I’m in the mood to complain some more about ancient astronaut writers’ slipshod scholarship. Today, let’s think about Erich von Däniken’s claim that the Golden Ram of Greek mythology, the flying creature who rescued Phrixus and Helle from their murderous stepmother and whose fur later became the Golden Fleece, was an airplane. Von Däniken makes the claim in Odyssey of the Gods (1999, English trans. 2000):
Would it surprise you that ol’ von Däniken was copying an earlier writer? Of course it doesn’t. In this case, he’s copying Robert Charroux, who made the same claim almost 30 years earlier:
More interesting is the fact that Charroux wasn’t the first to suggest this, either. An Afrocentrist named Drusilla Dunjee Houston asserted the Fleece was an airplane in 1926 and claimed the Ethiopians built it!
Now this is all well and good, but it rests on the assumption that the Golden Ram actually flew. But that is only one variant of the story. In the oldest known versions of the story, the ram is swimming, not flying. The swimming ram appears on the oldest Greek vases to depict the tale, from the fifth century BCE, predating our written sources. (A few older versions are known, but they are in too poor a condition to determine flight.) The literary warrant for flight dates back perhaps to the second century BCE and Callimachus, though the oldest extant text is that of Apollodorus, which, in its entirety states that “borne through the sky by the ram they [Phrixus and Helle] crossed land and sea” (1.9.1). Eratosthenes, by contrast, talks of a swimming ram. (Apollodorus’ version is the basis for modern myth manuals, which is where ancient astronaut writers get their information, not from primary sources.)
Since ancient astronaut writers counsel us to take ancient texts literally, we have a problem: the Ram both flew and swam according to the ancient texts, which, of course, cannot err. Worse, the ancients weren’t entirely comfortable with this whole “Ram” thing, either. Palaephatus (Myth 15), a euhemerist, said that “Ram” was merely the name of a person who built a ship to haul Phrixus and Helle away, and “Fleece” was the name of a golden statue in the ship’s cargo! Diodorus (4.47) instead states that the “Flying Ram” was really a ship whose prow was carved in the likeness of a ram, which Tacitus (Annals 4.34.4) also considered a likely explanation. Diodorus further preserves an alternate version whereby the Golden Fleece is rather grimly supposed to be the gilded skin flayed from the corpse of Phrixus’ executed tutor, a man named Mr. Ram (Greek: Krios, Latinized as Crius—an actual ancient first name):
Well, that’s quite the quandary for ancient astronaut writers. I’m glad I don’t have to try to explain why we should accept one sentence from one writer against all the other writers’ texts and all the artists’ vases depicting a swimming ram.
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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