Were Bible Writers High on Mushrooms? Matt Kaplan Thinks So: My Review of "Science of the Magical" (Pt. 3)
Over the past few days, I’ve been reviewing Economist science writer Matt Kaplan’s new book Science of the Magical (Scribner, 2015), and as I noted yesterday, I’ve been having a hard time describing exactly what it is supposed to be. As I try to make my way through the last part of the book, the best I can say is that it is an attempt to make the audience experience some of the wonder of science that the author feels by paralleling scientific advances of the present to ancient stabs at magic from the past. But even that isn’t quite right since the author freely mixes myth with history and science with euhemerism. The best I can say is that the author wanted to write about subjects of interest to him and visit a bunch of ancient sites in Europe, and he found someone to pay him to do so. That would be the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT, a nine-month paid residency at MIT and Harvard which he was awarded last year.
The biggest surprise of all came in the acknowledgements: that Harvard University’s faculty and students in Folklore and Mythology assisted the author in developing his ideas. Wow. Just, wow. He literally got paid to study mythology, had an entire Harvard University team helping him, and still produced this. I feel bad about not liking the book, particularly since it really should be the kind of thing I enjoy, but it was just so… thin. When I think about how much money was spent on the research and how many advantages he had in being able to travel anywhere and talk to anyone, I can’t help but think that the book should have been much stronger than it is, and perhaps even more insightful than the Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages investigation I literally assembled on a budget of $99. (That was my big outlay; my other books were done for $50 or less.)
The sixth chapter looks at prognostication and prophecy, but it starts out on a sour note when the author quotes a passage on Dodona from Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women, lines 507-544. This is truly an astonishing find since the Catalogue doesn’t exist anymore, having been lost in Antiquity. Now, as it happens, I own the same book that Kaplan says he used (it’s also online), so I can see that he’s wrong. The passage in question is numbered fragment 97 in the old Loeb edition, and it comes from the scholiast on Sophocles’ Trachinae at line 1167. Hugh Evelyn-White, the translator Kaplan uses, numbered the lines of the fragment 1-11, appropriate given that it is a fragment and the complete poem is lost. So how did he get lines 507-544 out of that? Easy: He mixed up his citations. This citation actually refers to Theogony 507-544, the section on myths of the liver, and belongs much later in the chapter (see below). Somehow he paired this citation with text from the Catalogue fragment.
A second text he attributes to Strabo at “bk. 13, chap. 7, fragment 1c,” but the Loeb edition he uses clearly labels this as (the editor’s) fragment 1c of Book 7, cited to Eustathius’ commentary on Odyssey 14.327. The reason for the mistake seems to be that he will later cite sections from Book 13 for his next chapter and mixed up his references through failing to double check. This kind of careless error is distressingly common in the book, and it’s clear no editor checked anything, even though the material is easily checkable with a simple Google search.
It’s also disconcerting that one of his sources for Greek mythology is Robert Graves, whose euhemeristic and idiosyncratic interpretations have led so many writers astray.
He devotes part of this chapter to divination by liver and seems unaware of his own earlier discussion of how the Greeks “really” discovered liver regeneration. Now the liver is some mystical portal to the divine, which wasn’t good enough a reason to care about it back when it was Prometheus’ liver a few chapters ago. This time, Kaplan concludes that while liver augury was often used for ridiculous purposes, at its root studying the livers of animals taught the ancients whether the animals were healthy so they could predict the success of that year’s food yield. “I think there is enough evidence for us to suspect that these practices were at least sometimes based upon a reasonable degree of rational analysis of the surrounding world.” If that were ever the case, it was so far back in time—before Babylonian haruspicy—that it is utterly irrelevant to how the practice was used in historical times.
The chapter concludes with the familiar suggestion that the Oracle at Delphi was high on geological fumes, and then a brief discussion of whether science will give us machines with mind-reading powers like those of Charles Xavier from the X-Men.
This chapter is devoted to the underworld, and it is less objectionable due to the material he relates being more firmly established. It’s well-known that the Greeks and Romans attributed to volcanic and noxious places entrances to the underworld, and the ancient peoples of Mexico did the same with cenotes. However, I need to take issue with the following claim, drawn as it is from old Victorian “solar hero” claims: “Sun gods and underworld deities are almost always enemies in mythology.” They most certainly are not. Indeed, in many cases the sun is an underworld deity. The Mesopotamians, for example, imagined that the sun descended to the underworld at night and served as a judge of the dead. A Sumerian poem even describes his underworld palace where he judged those who came before him. The Greek Hades was no enemy of Helios either, even though Kaplan thinks so (adopting the Hellenistic reading of Apollo as the sun god). But Kaplan imagines that his view of mythology is good science: “Aside from making logical sense, since light and darkness are antithetical, chemistry is behind this too. Carbon dioxide molecules readily absorb the infrared radiation found in sunlight.” Seriously? Nergal, the underworld god and god of the noontime sun and the sunset, would roll over in whatever passes for graves among forgotten gods.
This leads to a discussion of near-death experiences and their scientific explanation, and Kaplan speculates that Odin was named the Lord of the Hanged because of the near-death experiences asphyxiated persons had. He doesn’t even give lip service to the likely Christian influence behind the story of Odin hanging from the World Tree with a spear piercing his side.
Potions! Here we should be on at least somewhat firm ground since potions really existed, however useless they were in reality. Sadly, it is not to be since our author tries to claim that the story of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis isn’t merely a fiction but a representation of either mind-altering plants or parasite-infected fruits that can “commandeer the minds of the animals they infect.” Anyway, he says that the fruit was a magic mushroom on the authority of Rabbi Eli Herscher, whose son was a friend of his in high school. The good rabbi says that the Hebrew word for “fruit” in “fruit of the tree of knowledge” can also be found in the phrase “fruit of the earth,” which included vegetables and possibly fungi. He does not go so far as to conclude that the fruit in Genesis is a mushroom, but Kaplan does. (Terence McKenna and John M. Allegro, neither of whom Kaplan mentions, both made that claim back in the twentieth century, so it is hardly a revelation from Kaplan, as he presents it.) Kaplan says he thinks that the “author” of Genesis likely used magic mushrooms when writing Adam’s story. I love the way he blithely dismisses centuries of investigation into the composition and origins of Genesis for a simplistic claim that it was all just mushrooms. I’d recommend that he try reading the much more sophisticated work of David Lewis-Williams on the effects of altered states of consciousness on the origins of religion, but I doubt it would do much good.
Kaplan also speculates that pain rituals are designed to enhance mental perception, so the Mayan bloodletting rituals weren’t just displays of faith to bloodthirsty gods but rather ways to experience mental ecstasy.
On a different note, he claims that while the story of Jason and the Argonauts is fictional, he believes it was based on real giant snakes and real sleep-inducing herbs. This ignores the vast literature on the Indo-European serpent-slaying myth, but at this point, who cares? Kaplan has revealed himself to be a Euhemerist, and context and history aren’t important so long as he can parallel and old story to a modern scientific fact. Like = like, as the sympathetic magicians used to say and the homeopaths still do. He is an ancient astronaut theorist in slightly different clothes, replacing space-age rocket science with the eco-friendly holistic science of more modern fancy.
The chapter finishes with love potions and the science of attraction. Since the author isn’t familiar with his own material, he doesn’t bother using Medea as a bridge between sections, even though she was the unwitting subject of one of mythology’s most infamous jabs of Cupid’s arrow. His transitions are unartful, and they detract from the book, rendering it choppier than it need be.
Our final chapter almost abandons the conceit of ancient history altogether in favor of looking at the science of superpowers, or, more accurately, the science of human extremes, whether they be mental or physical. Well, that’s what the first part of the chapter pretends, anyway. It never really gets going on that, despite the introduction’s failed promise to discuss superheroes. Partway through the chapter becomes a discussion of stage magic and illusion, with occasional reference to myth and legend given as throwaways to connect this back to the rest of the book. In a better-written book, one perhaps with a stronger sense of what the author meant by “magic,” this might have made sense, but as written it sort of comes out of nowhere, particularly since nearly the whole book has up until now focused on Greco-Roman Antiquity and modern science. The material is about what you’d get from the average episode of NatGeo’s Brain Games, and not really worth commenting on except to say that the author doesn’t bother to discuss (or doesn’t know) about the way ancient priests and medieval clerics and royals made use of some of the techniques of modern stage magicians and mentalists.
After a full book of speculation, too often phrased in the form of rhetorical questions meant to excuse a lack of answers, Kaplan concludes by saying that he now has a better understanding of magic and feels that ancient magic was used to explain the unknown while modern stage magic is used to present the illusion of the unknown. “The key difference is that technology developed for the stage, screen, and theme park now allows what could once only be written about to take shape right before our eyes.” Yes, he is a deep thinker. He finishes by saying that the process of euhemerizing myths (sorry: “discovering the science behind our myths”) as “magical.” Indeed, he says that the pleasure of writing the book came in trying to match science to stories. He does not explain why his view of magic tends to be focus primarily on Greco-Roman Antiquity, with only rare excursions to non-Western peoples, and even then almost never to hunter-gatherers or tribal peoples.
But I’d like to conclude by emphasizing a different point. Kaplan says in his final paragraphs that he believes that while our ancestors lived in a world suffused with what they believed to be magic, “most of us now only encounter magic when we want to,” in art. This speaks volumes about who he thinks his audience is and how Kaplan fundamentally misunderstands the world. A certain subset of a particular socioeconomic class may live in a world of science and reason, but surveys find that the vast majority of Americans share far more in common with the magical worldview of the Greeks and Romans than with upper class secularists. The selfsame “magic” that Kaplan dismisses as misunderstood science continues to be a major and active part of American life. According to the Chapman University survey of American fear conducted just this year, 41.4% of Americans believe in ghosts, 27% that the living and the dead can communicate, 21% that dreams foretell the future, and 14% in astrology. If we dare to add to that the more than half of all Americans who told Pew Research in 2013 that they believe in demonic possession, the 77% who told the AP in 2011 that they believe in angels, and the 77% who told Fox News pollsters in 2011 that they believe that prayer produces tangible results, it’s hard to argue that the modern world confines its magic only to movies, books, and television.
Kaplan is clearly writing for people like himself, who live in a world of secular liberalism, where it’s just common sense that Adam and Eve never existed and of course the writer of Genesis was trippin’ on ’shrooms—people who like the idea of feeling superior through appeals to reason, even when rationalization outstrips what can be proved. In other words, Kaplan and Euhemerus are more alike than Kaplan might admit.
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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