The Paradigm Symposium, a gathering primarily of alternative historians, ancient astronaut theorists, and other assorted New Age types, is taking place in Minnesota, and yesterday PZ Myers attended Scott F. Wolter’s lecture on Mary Magdalene’s secret Oreo cookies recipe (it features partially hydrogenated soybean oil and Holy Blood) and was dumbfounded by Wolter’s “revelations,” which are old news to regular readers of this blog after I reviewed Wolter’s Akhenaten to the Founding Fathers a week ago.
Myers describes Wolter’s lecture as “bizarre, rambling,” and self-congratulatory, an exercise in the speaker’s own ego more than anything else. While Myers merely scoffed at Wolter’s claims (which I have debunked and challenged at length), particularly that the Oreo cookie contains a secret Masonic-Templar code, he did report a telling detail that I think says it all about the audience for such idiocies: “People applauded. Dear god, wasn’t the cookie slide a loud enough cry for help?”
I am astonished that Scott Wolter is actually using the Oreo cookie example in his lectures. I have half a mind to send a note to Nabisco and ask them if they intend to maintain their sponsorship of A+E Networks programming (they advertise on Lifetime) so long as they employ a conspiracy theorist who is profiting from claims that they are part of a cabal of crypto-Jews who run the world in secret.
There is almost literally nothing that true believers are not willing to applaud and accept so long as a perceived alternative history “expert” tells them it is the result of deep research. This is all the more ironic, since most of what these “experts” push is a thinly veiled effort to induce the audience to reject mainstream scholars as false and sometimes evil authorities and embrace the alternative researchers with their money and their loyalty.
Now, let’s move on to a strange but tangentially related piece from the current issue of the Skeptical Inquirer that suffers from its author’s lack of knowledge about the subject on which he has chosen to debunk.
Do you remember the way Scott Wolter claimed that many Native American tribes adopted two-headed eagles as their symbols in alleged imitation of the Masonic two-headed eagle—even centuries before the Masons started using the symbol? At the time, I mentioned how the two headed eagle had been a widespread European heraldic device from the Middle Ages down to the present and therefore entered Masonry from the Prussian king’s personal arms. (Many Native American symbols are of independent origin, though some may be later imitations of Habsburg arms after the Conquest by the forces of the Habsburg Spanish.)
This is all background to Brian Regal’s article on “The Jersey Devil: The Real Story” in the November-December 2013 edition of Skeptical Inquirer. In general, the article is a well-written discussion of the origins of the Jersey Devil (originally Leeds Devil) myth in the colonial-era politics of New Jersey. However, Regal, an instructor in the history of science with degrees in American history, has overstepped in assigning part of the origins of the Jersey Devil to my poor, beloved double-headed eagle.
My poor eagle gets so much blame: Various people have attributed to it everything from covert Masonic influence to the origin of the pirates’ Jolly Roger in a misreading of Austrian frigates’ double-eagle flags as bearing a black skull on a yellow banner. (Many privateers sailed under Austrian flags due to lax Austrian regulation.)
Regal attributes the Jersey Devil to controversy over the Leeds Almanack, which courted controversy in the late 1600s by including “pagan” astrological material. After the original publisher, David Leeds, gave way to his son, Titan Leeds, the Almanack changed, and Regal makes a big deel out of its new format, which includes the coat of arms of the House of Leeds on its masthead.
Here’s how Regal describes the arms:
In 1728, Titan redesigned the masthead to include the Leeds family crest, which contained three figures on a shield. Dragon-like with a fearsome face, clawed feet, and bat-like wings, the figures, known as wyverns, are suspiciously reminiscent of the later descriptions of the Jersey Devil.
They are no such thing.
Today, the Leeds family coat of arms is usually depicted with three single-headed black eagles on a white shield separated by a red stripe. In checking the historical sources for heraldry, dating back into the eighteenth century, I found in less than 30 seconds that the arms of the noble family of Leeds were officially defined thus: “Argent, a fess gules, between three eagles displayed sable, a bordure by way of the second.” In other words, a white shield with a red central horizontal stripe above which are two black eagles and one black eagle below. According to the literature, these arms were granted to a Sir Thomas Leeds, knight, sometime after 1338.
As for why Titan Leeds chose to display his family’s three eagles as two-headed, I could not say. Generally, in the 1700s two-headed eagles were seen as imperial (being the arms of the Habsburg and Romanov emperors—both borrowing from the Byzantines, with the Russians altering their gold eagle design in the 1700s to match the Habsburgs’ black eagle) and single-headed eagles as royal. Perhaps he was giving himself a promotion. Or perhaps, since the grant of arms did not specify the number of heads, such variations were allowable. I’m not an expert in heraldry and do not really know.
But what I do know is that the depiction of the eagles on Leeds’s masthead is virtually identical to depictions of similar eagles in other eighteenth century illustrations. The anemic wings and overly-prominent legs were standard for the time. Take a look at this two-headed eagle of the Russian empress Catherine the Great:
And this British private-issue halfpenny from 1796:
The degree of stylization depended on the artist, of course, and some eagles were more realistic than others. Nevertheless, the thin wings and thick legs emerge in the 1600s and persist until the middle 1800s, when, under the influence of the redesign of the Habsburg arms to better display the arms of the various territories they controlled on the wings of the eagle, larger, more natural wings and smaller legs came into vogue. (The Russians, always imitating the Habsburgs, altered their arms into a near-identical eagle when redesigned in the mid-1800s.)
Anyway, that’s of special interest to me, and probably not you.
The people of New Jersey in the 1700s would have read the symbols on Titan Leeds’s almanac as eagles, not “wyverns,” as they conformed to standard depictions of the animal. Of course, we can’t discount the idea that someone might have taken them for dragon-like monsters, but there is no evidence of this. In short, Regal is projecting his own views of the Jersey Devil onto Leeds’s coat of arms, having already decided that Titan Leeds sparked the Jersey Devil story. This is not a revelation but a back-formation of an origin point for the Jersey Devil image from a pre-conceived conclusion.
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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