How creepy, on a scale of 1 to 10, do you find the idea of giants?
I must confess, I was never particularly bothered by them. They have never struck me as uncanny. Just extra-large people, right? This might be partly because of portrayals like Disney’s, where the giants(s) are not too malevolent and certainly not too bright.
And the Iron Giant, and Gulliver when he was in Lilliput. In all of these cases, the fact of a person being huge creates some interesting logistical problems, but it certainly isn’t horror in the same category as anything unnatural, undead, or even as really depraved human evil.
All that to say, if I had set about, unguided, to pick a force of evil for my story, giants would not be the first place I would have gone.
Nevertheless, giants ended up in my first novel because they are featured in Genesis.
[The] story is told succinctly in Genesis 6:1 – 4, one of the most enigmatic and misinterpreted passages in the Bible. Here is how it reads in the oldest surviving copy … the Greek Septuagint:
“And it came to pass when men began to be numerous upon the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God having seen the daughters of men that they were beautiful, took to themselves wives of all whom they chose. … Now the giants were upon the earth in those days; and after that when the sons of God were wont to go in to the daughters of men, they bore children to them, those were the giants of old, men of renown.”
[In this book], we will proceed upon the premise that this passage tells of a time in the remote past when heavenly beings entered the abode of humans, and through our women were able to spawn a race of half-breed children, giants that all cultures throughout the world remember as powerful and often wicked, ruthless demigods.
Douglas Van Dorn, Giants: sons of the gods, pp. 2 – 3, emphasis in the original
In other words, that there were once, in actual history, giants that were half human, and that could in some sense be called demigods.
In the rest of the book, Van Dorn looks in detail at this passage and others, and answers arguments about whether this passage, and other passages that seem to assume the same background, should be interpreted to be talking about literal giants or about the people of God versus humans who had rejected God. He also delves into Hebrew terms for other demonic and paranormal creatures, terms that often get rendered as various animals in modern translations.
I am not going to get into the exegetical discussion in this post. But I am going to touch on how Van Dorn’s thesis – that this stuff actually happened, way back in the mists of human history – is backed up by what is usually called mythology.
It is a really strange fact that every culture has stories about giants, gods, and various other supernatural creatures (including chimeras, but that’s another topic). This fact does not strike us as strange – at least, it didn’t me – precisely because these stories are so old and so universal. We just accept it as a given that human “legends” and “myths” deal with threatening creatures that we do not see today. We don’t look for an explanation of why this should be. I am sure that Jung could give you a psychological explanation for the universality of giant stories. Jordan Peterson could give you a Jungian, evolutionary explanation.
And certainly, the idea of a giant as a large and threatening presence is deeply embedded in the human mind. But why? How did this idea get there? Why aren’t our symbols of evil just bears and saber-toothed tigers, if those were the only threats our ancestors were dealing with?
If you go to Bali, you can see sculptures of an ugly, bearded giant being attacked by an eagle as he attempts to carry off a beautiful girl with an elaborate crown and hair that falls to her ankles. This is an illustration of a scene from the Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic that, in the millennia since it entered Indonesia, has there acquired its own flavor. In the Indonesian version, the beautiful girl is Sinta, bride of the prince Rama. The giant (raksasa) captures her through deception, carries her off, and is able to fly to get her back to his castle. The heroic eagle (garuda) attacks him in the air. This is a favorite scene for sculptors and illustrators, who still exist in great numbers in Bali and are insanely talented. The story is also told in shadow-puppet plays and operas.
In Borneo, where I had the privilege to live for a few years, they have their own local legends. One common theme in these is that you should not marry outside your clan, because if you marry a girl from an unknown people, she might turn out not to be human. In one story, a young man marries a foreign girl. When she goes down to the river to bathe, he goes to spy on her and is shocked to see her take off her head.
One area, where we lived for about a year, had a large local mountain with a distinctive jagged top. As the story went, this mountain once reached the clouds. A giant used to climb down it in order to eat the people down below. Then a female hero used a machete to hack off the top of the mountain. The giant, now trapped in the clouds, looks down upon the people but cannot eat them anymore. It drools, and the drops of drool become the bloodsucking leeches that live in the jungle on the slopes of the mountain. Still trying to eat the people, you see.
These few stories from island southeast Asia illustrate features that show up associated with giants again and again: kidnapping/rape, and eating people. (I mean, that is virtually all the giants and demigods do in the Greek myths, for example.) I mention these stories from Bali and Borneo to show just what a wide geographical area the human consensus on giant behavior seems to cover.
Given all this, giants are starting to look more like what we in our house would call a “horror creature.” To review: based on Genesis and numerous myths worldwide, the giants:
are not fully human, but are some sort of human/supernatural hybrid
are nevertheless fully physical and present in actual history
seem to like kidnapping human women
seem to like eating people
are smart enough to practice deception
Ok, now this is starting to get scary. If we accept that these myths are historical memories, then all of a sudden, hearing giant stories is sort of like hearing about atrocities committed by people during the Holocaust, or the Communist takeover of Cambodia, or any other of humanity’s many periods of pure, unrestrained, depraved evil. But it’s scary in another way too. Given the purported origin of these giants, it’s like hearing about a successful genetic experiment, or like finding out that demon possession is real.
I’ve always kind of longed to live in the really ancient ages of the world. But, the more I learn, the more relieved I am to be living in modern times. We slam the door to the giants shut behind us, and lean against it, panting.
The Maya flourished between approximately 1000 BC and 1500 AD in Central America. Their civilization was centered in the Yucatan Peninsula and the lowland and hilly regions south of it. Their sites are found in what are now the countries of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.
There is so much to learn about the Maya. I have barely dipped my toe in it. As always when learning about a new culture or civilization, I was met with the thrill of the exotic followed by a creeping feeling of familiarity. Though the Maya are very unique, in their own distinctly Mayan way they also epitomize certain things about human beings. In some sense, the more unique they are, the better they epitomize it.
They Are Surprising to Other People
I don’t know why, but people always get excited when they discover other people. (Animals get excited too: “Oh goody! A person!”) And we are always discovering other people, in the most remote corners of space and time, where for some reason we did not expect to find them, though you would think we’d have learned our lesson by now.
The Maya were particularly hard to find because of the geography of the region they inhabited. Jungle is not kind to the preservation of buildings or artifacts. It destroys things quickly, grows over things and hides them, and can make the region impassable.
A really thick jungle allows no roads through it, and once they arrived, here is what some of the archaeologists found:
“The rain was incessant,” Charnay complained. “The damp seems to penetrate the very marrow of our bones; a vegetable mould settles on our hats which we are obliged to brush off daily; we live in mud, we are covered in mud, we breathe in mud; the ground is so slippery that we are as often on our backs as on our feet.” Once Charnay awakened to find 200 “cold and flat insects the size of a large cockroach” in his hammock, 30 of which clung to his body and bit him painfully.
The Magnificent Maya, p. 22
They Got Romanticized
In the early 1500s, during the Spanish conquest of the region, Spanish priests managed to preserve some Mayan cultural data – vocabulary lists, transcriptions of myths, and a few codices (books) – at the same time they were brutally wiping the culture out. These records remained obscure until, 300 years later, there was a resurgence of interest in the Maya. Explorers, hobbyists, and artists who happened to have the time, money, and fortitude to brave the jungles started unearthing Mayan ruins and making sketches and watercolors of them. In some cases, these sketches are the only record we have, since the jungle has continued its destructive work in the 200 years since.
Once European academics started getting interested in the Maya, they realized there was a very elaborate system of numbers and pictographs that they could not read. Thus began a long, haphazard process of rediscovering old codices and cross-checking them with symbols found on the monuments, as recorded in photographs and drawings. The number system was easier to decipher – dots for ones and bars for fives, for example – and so the first thing that got decoded were dates and astronomical cycles,
… which led many experts to conclude that Maya writing was limited to such matters. As late as the 1950s this was still the most prevalent view, and its chief spokesmen were the American archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., and J. Eric S. Thompson, a British archaeologist also affiliated with Carnegie. Thompson drew a picture of the Maya as a peaceful, contemplative people, obsessed with the passage of time, and guided by priests who watched the movements of celestial bodies and discerned in them the will of the gods. Maya cities were ceremonial centers, he believed, not bastions of the worldly power.
The Magnificent Maya. p. 33
Over the next few decades, through the work of several brilliant code breakers, about 80 percent of Mayan glyphs were deciphered. Turns out they are a combination of ideograms (an image representing an idea) and phonetic units (an image representing a sound). As this work went on, researchers have been able to read more and more of the Mayan myths and history, which in turn has helped us better to interpret their art. They started to discover that the 19-century “noble savage” characterization of the Maya was badly mistaken.
They Were Shockingly Cruel
First of all, the Mayan society was indeed hierarchical, with battles for succession and kings of city-states engaging in (perhaps ritual?) warfare. Discoveries during the 1990s confirmed that this hierarchy was present hundreds of years earlier than previously guessed. (Archaeologists’ preconceptions might have had something to do with these inaccurate guesses. See my post about Serpent Mound for a critique of the 19th-century idea that civilizations always develop along certain lines, from hunter-gatherers, to villages, to cities.)
But warfare was only the beginning. There was also the bloodletting, the torture, and the human sacrifice.
Apparently, Mayan royalty were expected to offer blood to their gods. During these bloodletting rituals, they would have visions. There are pictures and statues of both men and women doing this. Women would draw a stingray spine through their tongue to produce the blood. Men would draw blood from their tongue, earlobes, or genitals. (Yikes.) They would allow the blood to be absorbed by sheets of bark paper, which was then burned, the smoke being a way of getting the blood to the gods.
If a culture is going to have a painful ritual, it’s good that it should be done by the royalty. That’s certainly better than having a royalty that is unwilling to suffer for their duty and their people. If this were the only painful ritual the Maya had, I’d kind of admire it. But it wasn’t.
The Maya were big on human sacrifice. Decapitation was popular, or they might throw the victims into a sacred cenote (large natural limestone hole filled with water) if one was available. High-born victims, captured in war, would be mutilated and displayed before the community before being offed. Later, perhaps under the influence of the feathered-serpent cult of the Toltecs, Mayan priests would cut out the victim’s heart, offer it (and its steam – ew!) to the sun, and then kick the body down the steps of the temple. This ritual was still being conducted at Uxmal in the 1500s, which is why we know about details like the kicking of the body (Magnificent Maya, 139 – 140). Chacmools, which were obviously built to hold something, may have been made to hold human hearts.
Then there were the ball games. Did I mention that the Maya were big sports fans? Like, really big. You have probably heard of this game, where the players would use their hips and buttocks to bounce a large, heavy rubber ball off the sloping walls of the court. Apparently, the Maya took their sports so seriously that the losers of this game might be sacrificed, either by one of the methods above, or by being trussed up and used as the ball until they died (94 – 95). This very ball game features in the Mayan creation story, the Popol Vuh, where the Hero Twins play the game against the inhabitants of the Underworld. The reason they are obliged to do so? The rulers of the Underworld “covet [the brothers’] sporting gear and want to steal it” (56 – 57). This story, too, features a lot of torture.
Cruelty is always shocking, which is why the heading for this section says “shockingly cruel.” But it should not shock us to discover that a previously unknown civilization featured widespread, institutionalized atrocity. Every single human culture has something like this. Cultures can have good historical moments when the human evil is comparatively restrained, and they can have bad historical moments when it is encouraged. You could argue that in the case of the Maya, it had really gotten out of hand, and I think you’d be right. But I don’t think that makes the Maya different from any other people in their basic humanity. In their uniqueness, they epitomize what human beings are capable of. People are extremely creative, and they have often used their creativity to dream up ways to torture one another. This is why we have the expression, “Man, the glorious ruin.”
They Were Jaw-Droppingly Smart
And now we get to the glorious part. No matter how depraved, broken, fallen, or ruined they may be, human beings never stop being made in the image of God, which means they will keep on being creative and clever and productive. It has long been a theme on this blog that ancient people were smarter than modern people expect. This is because they were people, and people are always surprising other people – because the other people are proud – with their cleverness.
The Maya were advanced mathematicians. They had the concept of zero, and the idea of place value, which the Romans did not have. They had calculated the solar year at 365.2420 days (the modern calculation is 365.2422), and the time of the moon’s orbit at 29.528395 days (modern figure is 29.530588). They had figured out the average synodical revolution of the planet Venus (the amount of time it takes for Venus’s orbit and the earth’s orbit to sync up so that Venus is rising in the exact same spot in the sky). This average happens to be 583.92 days, and they had figured out how to reconcile this with their “sacred year” (13 months of 20 days each) and with the solar year, by adding days every certain number of years, similar to our leap year. Bringing all these interlocking calendars into sync then allowed them to calculate mind-blowingly distant dates without losing accuracy.
All the above information is from Graham Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods. Hancock then quotes Thompson, the romanticizer whom we met a few sections ago. Studying the Mayan calendar, Thompson had reason to be impressed:
As Thompson summed up in his great study on the subject:
“On a stela at Quiriga in Guatemala a date over 90 million years ago is computed; on another a date over 300 million years before that is given. These are actual computations, stating correctly day and month positions, and are comparable to calculations in our calendar giving the month positions on which Easter would have fallen at equivalent distances in the past. The brain reels at such astronomical figures.”
Hancock, Fingerprints of the Gods, p. 162
Hancock, being a bit of a snob, questions why the Maya “needed” to develop these calendrical and mathematical tools. He speculates that the Maya had inherited “a coherent but very specific body of knowledge … from an older and wiser civilization.”
“What kind of level of technological and scientific development,” Hancock asks, “was required for a civilization to devise a calendar as good as this?” (158 – 159)
Of course, he is asking these questions because he’s heading in the direction of civilization having dispersed from a “mother-civilization.” That’s fine with me, but in asking these questions he also betrays a worship of science and technology that is distinctly modern and that, when applied to ancient peoples, makes us shortsighted. Why should mathematical genius exist only in the service of technology? The Maya were smart, and they wanted to make these calculations about the celestial bodies and about dates in the distant past and future. Isn’t that enough? Furthermore, they actually recorded why they were so obsessed with these calculations. Their cosmology held that time proceeded in predictable cycles of disasters, and they were pretty concerned with knowing when the next one was coming. That was the purpose of the Long Count calendar, as Hancock himself points out on page 161. It was a doomsday clock. That may also have been a big part of the reason for the horrifying sacrificial system.
The Long Count calendar is what everyone was talking about when they were saying the Maya had predicted a cataclysm for Dec. 23, 2012. It didn’t happen – phew! – and, frankly, for obvious reasons I don’t completely buy in to their cosmology. Although we do need to consider the possibility that in converting the dates, we made a mistake in interpreting their extremely complex system.
Bottom Line, the Mayans are People
I can’t say that I find the Mayan – or the Toltec, Aztec, or Olmec – myths or aesthetic particularly attractive. I dipped my toe in because as part of the research for my books, I need to at least know my way around the ancient Mesoamerican mindset. As the research proceeds, I find myself becoming increasingly fascinated with these people. But I still wouldn’t want to have lived as one. This has been true of virtually every ancient culture I’ve studied.
So, taking it in reverse order, here is what we have learned about the Maya, and here is what we have learned about humans.
Humans are smart.
Humans are evil.
Humans are wonderful.
Humans are everywhere.
Hancock, Graham, Fingerprints of the Gods. 1995, Three Rivers Press, Random House, Inc., New York, New York.
Reader’s Digest books, editors, Mysteries of the Ancient Americas. 1986, The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York.
This post is the second in a series of posts based on chapters from this book:
As Rudgley writes in the Introduction:
In this book I will show … how great is the debt of historical societies to their prehistoric counterparts in all spheres of cultural life; and how civilised in many respects were those human cultures that have been reviled as savage.
Ibid, p. 1
What do you mean, “Stone Age”?
“Stone Age,” of course, sounds very ancient, and that is by design. But when Rudgley talks about the Stone Age, often the dates involved are “only” about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago (approximately the time we think that people were crossing the Land Bridge). This falls before the beginning of recorded history — we think — unless we are willing to accept local origin myths worldwide as inevitably garbled historical records. After the small amount of study I have done about the historicity of myths, of Genesis, and of the many amazing prehistoric engineering feats, I no longer think of Stone Age people as “cave men,” but rather as fully modern humans, certainly our intellectual equals and probably our superiors. For my disclaimer about the dating of archaeological sites and prehistoric events, see my last post about Rudgley, here.
The “Venuses” of Eurasia
Chapter 14 of Rudgley (pp 184 – 200) discusses the large number of small female figurines which have been found all over Europe and as far east as Siberia. These are called “Venuses,” though of course they would not have been called that by the original artists. They were being produced (if we take the dating at face value) over a period of many thousands of years.
The oldest one, according to Rudgley, dates to the Aurignacian age, about 31,000 years ago: “the Venus of Galgenburg [Austria].” It is 7 mm tall, made of a soft green stone, and is artistically sophisticated. The figure is posed as if dancing. She is bearing her weight on her left leg. The right leg is carved free of the left and braces on the base of the figure. The right arm is carved free of the body, with the hand bracing on the knee. Clearly the sculptor knew what he or she was doing when it came to posing the figure, carving free limbs that would not break off, and piercing through the material without breaking it. Since this is (by hypothesis) the oldest such figure that we have, it’s clear that we don’t have a case of an artistic tradition that started out crude and later became more advanced. (pp 192 – 194)
Probably the best-known of these figures is the Venus of Willendorf (also found in Austria).
When I was first exposed (pun not intended) to this little figurine, it was introduced to me simply as “the mother goddess.” Although shocking to modern eyes, it is certainly a work of art. As you can see, it has no face, but it has a considerable amount of detail in odd places such as the knees, private parts, and hairdo. The hair looks a bit like corn rows to me, but could also be braids wrapped around the head or even styled curls a la the Babylonian kings. “Alexander Marshack believes the coiffure of the Willendorf figurine may be one of the symbols of a mature and fertile woman” (198).
Not all of the Stone Age Venuses are fat or naked.
Bednarik is very skeptical about the usefulness of lumping all female figurines of the period together, noting that they are extremely diverse in numerous ways. Some are naked; others partly or fully clothed. Some are in pregnant condition; others are not. Some are fat to the point of obesity, whilst others are very slender. Beyond the fact that they all depict females and most come from the same period of the Upper Palaeolithic, they appear to have little in common.
Ibid, p. 197
The Meaning of the Venuses
Figures like the Willendorf Venus are very intriguing to some people, for obvious reasons. The explanation most ready to hand is that they are artifacts of some kind of fertility religion. This explanation is the more intuitive because of what we know about the importance that fertility often plays in pagan religions worldwide.
Marija Gimbutas has taken these figures and other evidence to posit a wide-ranging “civilization of the goddess” in Old Europe. (She published a book with that title in 1991.) She deduces (or speculates) quite a lot about this religion from Venus artifacts and from other sources. Her thesis is that the gentle, goddess-worshipping Old Europeans were overrun by warlike worshippers of a sky god coming from the Eurasian steppes (i.e. the Indo-Europeans). Gimbutas’ work had quite a strong influence on one of my high school literature teachers, who emphasized to us that worshipers of a male sky god “always” come to rape, pillage and plunder, steal, kill, and destroy. (At this point, the neo-pagans in the class would give the Christians the side eye.) We will deal with Gimbutas in another post, probably later this year.
In Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear books, the venuses are definitely symbols of a goddess of fertility and sexuality. Her male lead Jondalar comes from a matriarchal society in western Europe where the figurines are referred to as doni. Jondalar, when distressed, will even exclaim, “Oh, Doni!” The female lead Ayla, meanwhile, was raised by Neanderthals, who in Auel’s books severely oppress their women (because, of course, they fear their procreative power).
Moving even farther along the continuum of being obsessed with sex, Rudgley’s chapter includes a hilarious discussion of how some archaeologists have gotten over-excited and begun to interpret nearly all Palaeolithic art as porn.
It has been suggested that another important aspect of Aurignacian art was their liberal and frequent use of sexual imagery, particularly … female genitalia. This theory was first developed by l’Abbe Breuil … The idea soon caught on among French prehistorians and became something of a dogma, and various shapes engraved in stone … that looked vaguely like a vulva were automatically perceived as such by scholars eager to discover further proof of the prehistoric obsession with sexual matters. … Perhaps the most absurd example of all is a description of a simple straight line as a representation of the vaginal opening.
Ibid, pp. 194 – 195
It just cracks me up that these were French prehistorians. Of course they were. Of course.
Rudgley sums up in a way that I think is quite reasonable and balanced:
[T]he fact that the figurines are found across a huge geographical area and a period of thousands and thousands of years means that it would be ridiculous to think that they all symbolised the same thing to their extremely diverse makers. It is quite apparent that the female body was used to express numerous concerns in Palaeolithic times. 
We can now see how any crude explanation of the Willendorf figurine as simply a fertility figure or an object of sexual desire is entirely inadequate. The representation of the female body during the Upper Palaeolithic period … was a symbol of cosmological significance that was able to express all aspects of Palaeolithic human concerns. 
If the female body was one of the most widespread and elaborate images of the Old Stone Age, and a symbol for the various forces of nature and the various aspects of culture, would it really be so far from the mark to believe that the figurines actually embody aspects of the Palaeolithic worship of a goddess? 
Rudgley, Lost Civilizations, chapter 14
… So, Why Are They Affirming Again?
Well, obviously, on the most superficial level, the Willendorf Venus is an implied affirmation to any modern woman who is pregnant, aging, or concerned about her weight. Somebody worked very hard to portray this lady.
On a slightly deeper level, our modern culture is one that really hates the idea of motherhood. We don’t like the idea that potential motherhood is a defining characteristic of being a woman, or that it might be a worthy or even glorious goal. Unfortunately for our tidy little minds, though, motherhood (besides being a kind of superpower) is in fact a built-in goal in the design of women. Which means that knocking it as a role and calling is pretty hard on women, even those who don’t realize it, because we, as a culture, are constantly asking them, in a thousand ways large and small, if for the sake of decency they could please not exist.
In this kind of environment, it’s a tonic to know that it was not always thus. There could exist – there apparently did exist – a culture that greatly valued, perhaps even worshiped, mothers. You don’t have to be an acolyte of the goddess to appreciate the boost this gives women.
Worshiping a good thing, rather than its creator, is idolatry and idols always turn on their followers. Thus, a religion of motherhood certainly would have come with its own distortions and injustices (such as devaluing infertile women, as we see in the Old Testament). But still … it’s nice to know that at one time a mature, even obese woman was considered a thing so good that she could possibly be worshiped.
I am dealing with this topic not because I feel a particular affinity for it. I don’t enjoy looking at the Venus of Willendorf, and despite the paragraph above I would not want to look like her. I tackled these figurines because my area of interest is prehistory, and durned if they don’t show up in it. Finding out how affirming they are to women was just an unexpected bonus. And if they do feel really weird even as they are affirming, I think the weirdness comes because they are from such a different culture.
And now to Rome, as always in December, came the Saturnalia.
“Io! Saturnalia!” That was the call that ushered in the merriest holiday of the Roman year — that hilarious, glorious, mid-December festival, the Saturnalia.
“Io! Saturnalia! Io! Io! Io!” That was the greeting that echoed through the holiday season. For it was in honor of Saturn — good, old, generous Saturn, kindest and most provident of the gods.
During those mid-December days (first three, later seven) no war was ever declared, nor battles fought, no criminals tried or punished. Courts were closed; schools dismissed; even the slave markets were shut down. During those days, all slaves were free [just] as in those golden days of old, all people had been equal. Everyone, rich, poor, young and old joined in a glorious holiday.
The day began with a sacrifice of thanksgiving in the early morning, followed by a public feast at midday, which turned into a wild, hilarious carnival before evening. In red pointed caps and colored costumes, merrymakers went singing and laughing through the streets, showering wheat and barley like confetti, and granting every wish, no matter how wild, ridiculous, or disgusting, made by the lucky one who had been chosen “King of the Saturnalia.”
The weeks ahead were always filled with preparation. Candlemakers and makers of dolls were busy pouring wax, turning out little earthenware images, and setting up booths for the doll fair. Every child would want a doll, and every household would need many candles for the Saturnalia.
Holly branches, with their bright berries, had to be cut and carted into the city, and houses trimmed with evergreen. Gifts for the family and friends must be selected and wrapped. For on the second day, after a family dinner of roast young pig, with all the trimmings, came an exchange of presents!
Augustus Caesar’s World: 44 BC to AD 14 by Genevieve Foster, Beautiful Feet Books, 1947, 1975, pp. 56 – 58
G.K. Chesterton has addressed the important question of what paganism really is and how it relates to being human in his book The Everlasting Man. So I was going to do a brand-new post about paganism drawing on that book. I was going to discuss how not everything in pagan practice is what we would strictly call religion, because it includes local history, genealogy, cosmology, entertainment, medicine, etc., etc. I was going to mention that all human beings need rituals, ways of dealing with illness, ways to mark the seasons, times of mourning and times of play, that literally every human practice was developed first by pagans and blah blah blah.
But I wasn’t able to get access to G.K. Chesterton’s book so as to write a brand-new post on all of this. Besides, conveniently, I have already written one.
Several years ago now, I found
myself sitting in a house in a jungle somewhere in Southeast Asia, among a
small ethnic group whose name has been redacted so I can write about them. Although I knew Christian believers in that
group, on this night I was sitting across from a devotee of the local
We sat cross-legged on the ironwood floor, and he had a cigarette pack on the floor in front of him. He was very passionate about our topic of discussion. He didn’t raise his voice, but I could tell he was worked up. Whenever he was making an especially important point, he would pick up the cigarette pack and slam it down again.
He spoke thus:
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you
that we [of this local religion] don’t believe in God. That’s a slander. We do
(slam) believe in God. But we also
(slam) believe in (slam) His bureaucrats.”
This is a very Southeast Asian view of the spiritual world: the heavenly bureaucracy. You can see it presented visually in some Hindu temples that resemble a tall, pointy mountain, and this mountain is covered with little niches, and in each niche is a statue of a divine being. They are not placed in there randomly. There is a place for each of them, and each in its place.
This view is also reflected in the
governing structure of the country in which I was sitting at the time. At the
top is the President. Below him (or her) are the governors of the provinces.
Below these, in descending order, are five or six additional ranks, each
responsible over a smaller geographical area, until you get down to Village
Head (or mayor). And below him, in each village, are the heads of families.
It’s an elaborate bureaucratic system, but everyone knows the names of all the
ranks. They have to deal with them daily. And of course, you always show
respect to anyone with a rank anywhere above your own.
My pagan friend went on,
“Think about it. You wouldn’t expect
the President to attend your wedding. Maybe not even the Governor. But you
might get [the next rank down], or [the rank below that]. Now think about how
many weddings must take place on a given day, all over the world. God can’t possibly
be at all of them. He would send His bureaucrats.”
His point was that showing
disrespect to the local spiritual “bureaucrats” would be akin to dishonoring
Now, clearly this person’s concept of God was anthropomorphic. He thought of Him as a big President in the sky, not omnipresent, not capable of (or even probably interested in) attending all the weddings. However, my main point with this story is that this person, out in the jungle, subscribing to a spiritual view of the world that most readers of this blog might find strange or even comical, had a concept of God as distinct from lesser gods. As he would be the first to tell you, he knew about and honored God.
This people group had no problem grasping the concept of “the Creator.” They had a beautiful, polysyllabic name for Him [again, redacted in exchange for the privilege of writing about these folks]. When individuals from this ethnic group became Christians, that name was the name they used in their prayers.
Local Religions Ground but also Divide
I have a lot of sympathy for local deities and mythologies. It is good for people to have their own culture and mythology, to feel grounded in something to which they legitimately belong. But in a cosmopolitan culture (and we are not the first cosmopolitan culture to discover this) there is a problem with just following our ancestors’ lead for the totality of our religion. The problem is that ancestral religion and identity politics don’t mix. I probably don’t need to elaborate on this. You can find your own examples of the impossible dilemmas it creates. The world is bristling with them.
United by One God
I could probably write another
1,000 words about this problem and cast no more light on it. So instead, listen to the words of Paul,
Apostle to the Gentiles, as he spoke to a group of sophisticated pagan
“People of Athens, I see that you are very religious.
For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even
found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an Unknown God.’ Now what you worship
as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and
everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples
built by hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything,
because He Himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one
man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and
He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should
(You wouldn’t think “He determined
the exact places where they would live” is very surprising, but I have heard
that it brought one group of native translators to tears. They had thought that
no one, human or divine, cared about them; that they had been forgotten.)
“God did this so that people would
seek Him and perhaps reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one
of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own
poets have said, ‘We are His offspring.’”
(By the way, notice how he alludes to the
wisdom already found in their own culture. But Paul, who was bi-cultural, isn’t
finished. Now he is going to call them to a purer, more direct worship of the
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all people by raising him from the dead.”
Bjorn Andreas Bull-Hansen blogs here about men’s mental health, viking culture and bushcraft (“viking camp”). That’s why I call him an actual Viking.
I realize that not all of you will make the time to watch this 8-minute video, so below are some highlights of the transcript. But you need to watch the video to get the full effect of the Norwegian accent, the poignant eye contact, and especially the emotion in this guy’s voice at 6:55 when he talks about “our gods. Or what we perceive as holy.”
Highlights of Bjorn Andreas Bull-Hansen Talking about Female Thor
“So, you want to make Thor a
[takes swig from beer bottle]
“… you people.
“Listen. I’m OK with a female Thor. I don’t care! That’s only because I’m a grownup.
“But here’s the thing. Thor is a symbol of masculine power. But I do suspect that … the writers … have a little bit of an agenda and they think it’s interesting to tear down that concept of masculine power. But let me tell you, there is actually such a thing.”
[takes swig of beer]
“My ancestors, they knew how important masculine power is for our society, for the family, and for our culture. And let me just say that you are stepping on something now that means a lot to some of us.
“So go ahead, make Thor a
woman. But just know this: if you think
it’s OK to make Thor a woman, you should never again criticize anyone for ‘cultural appropriation.’
“Every day, I walk my dog among the grave mounds of my ancestors. And my belief system is no less important than any other belief system.
“We should all lower our shoulders when it comes to our gods. Or what we perceive as holy. I think the world would be a better place if we did. But never again will you cry out about ‘cultural appropriation.’ Because that’s what you’re doing now, making Thor female.”
[swig of beer] [shakes head] “You people.
“So go ahead, go ahead! I don’t care. Thor is still out there. All around us, as a symbol of masculine power. He is present in every healthy society, in every healthy family.
“That’s all for now. Have a wonderful day! Bye-bye.”
Ohio’s serpent mound was first discovered by
white people in about 1846. It was
difficult to survey or even to find due to being covered in trees and brush. When the brush was partly cleared, it became
obvious that the mound, perched on a cliff at the confluence of a creek (which
cliff itself resembles the head of a serpent), was a really remarkable
earthwork and was designed to be visible from the nearby valley.
The following article will draw on the book The Serpent Mound by E.O. Randall, published in 1905, which is a compilation of maps, surveys, and speculation about the mound by archaeologists of the time; and on my own visit to the mound. One advantage in using these older sources is that we get a variety of voices, we can learn what the Mound looked like when it was first (re)-discovered, and we get an archaeological perspective that is different from the modern one. For example, one source in Randall’s book says the mound appears to be “not more than 1,000 years old, nor less than 350 years” (p.50). This is not very precise, but I actually prefer it to a super-confident proclamation about the mound’s age based on dating methods and assumptions that might be suspect. In fact, the uncertainty of this early source is echoed by the informational video in the mound’s museum. It features an archaeologist saying that we could get “a million different carbon dates” from the mound because the earth was that used to build it was already old and had been through multiple forest fires, etc. He adds that it’s basically impossible to carbon-date earthworks.
On the Road to Serpent Mound
To get to Serpent Mound (at least
from where we are), you get in your car and head south over the Ohio highways. You leave behind the urban build-up and
progress into farm country. Eventually, the
landscape becomes less Midwestern and more Appalachian. Hills and hollers take
the place of open farmland. Finally,
after hopping from one rural route to another, you find yourself winding
through thickly wooded hills in southern Ohio. You approach the Mound from the South. Though it stands on a bluff overlooking Brush
Creek, the area is so heavily wooded that you can’t catch a glimpse of the
Mound on your way in.
This land was purchased in
1885. At that time, the land was owned
by a farmer and the Mound was “in a very neglected and deplorable condition”
(Randall 106). To save the Mound from “inevitable
destruction,” a Prof. F.W. Putnam arranged to have it bought by the Trustees of
the Peabody Museum,
where he was Chief of the Ethnological and Archaeological Department. Putnam later worked to have a law protecting
it passed in Ohio, the first law of its kind
in the United States
(Randall 108). Today the Mound is a
National Historical Landmark. Besides
the Serpent itself, the area includes some additional burial mounds, a picnic
shelter, and a tiny, log-cabin-style museum.
You disembark in the parking lot. The heat, the humidity, the strong sweetish green smells, and the variety of insect life remind you of your Appalachian childhood. They also remind you why you are planning to move out West.
The Serpent Mound Itself
Serpent Mound is difficult to
describe in words, so please see the associated maps and photographs. It is 1335 feet long (winding over an area of
about 500 feet), varies from three to six feet high, and slopes downward from
the spiral tail to the jaws and egg which stand on the tip of the
overlook. The head faces West towards
the sunset at Summer Solstice. The body
includes three bends which may sight towards the sunrises at Summer Solstice,
Equinox, and Winter Solstice (short lines of sight and the gentle curves of the
Serpent make it difficult to tell whether these alignments were intended for
It was made apparently by hand on a
base of clay, followed by rocks, more clay, dirt, and then sod. Though it cannot be carbon-dated, there is
evidence that it is not as ancient as some megaliths elsewhere in the world. The bluff it sits on and the creeks that
surround it cannot be older than the retreat of the glaciers. The
burials near it date to the Adena period, which runs 600 B.C. to 100 A.D., though
there is no way to tell if the burials are contemporaneous with the Serpent or
were added later. There has even been
speculation that the Mound could have been built by the Fort Ancient
culture, which flourished around 1000 A.D.
The “egg” which the Serpent
contains in its jaws (or, the Serpent’s eye) used to have in its center a stone
altar which bore traces of fire. (In the
largest burial, too, the corpse was placed on a bed of hot coals and then
covered with clay while the coals were still smoldering.) We
assume, then, that the Serpent was the site of ceremonies, but we have no way
of knowing anything about their nature.
The Serpent, despite its name, does
not give a spooky or “wrong” feeling. The
scale of it is very human and does not overwhelm. The shapes and proportions of the curves are
pleasing and give a sense of calm and beauty.
The Serpent is, in fact, inviting to walk on. One is tempted to walk along the curves,
climb down into the oval of the egg, step into the middle of the spiral tail. One cannot do this, of course, as it is
The only problem with Serpent aesthetically (if this is a problem) is that it’s impossible to view it all at once. This is mostly because of the bend in the tail. In modern times an understated observation tower has been placed next to the Serpent, right near the tailmost curve. But even from the top of this tower it is impossible to take in the entire Serpent with either eye or cellphone camera. Looking to the left, we get a view of the spiral tail. Looking to the right, we see the undulations stretching off into the distance and falling away with the slope of the hill, but even then we cannot see the entire head because it takes its own slight curve and is blocked by trees.
I can’t help but think this effect
is intentional. This monument is not
designed to be taken in all at once, looking along a line of sight, and to
overwhelm the viewer. Instead, it’s
apparently designed to draw us on, tantalizingly offering small charming vista
after small charming vista. There is no
one best place to view it. Perhaps the
architects among us can explain what this says about the minds and intentions
of the people who designed it.
Fort Ancient, another hill-and-plateau complex in southern Ohio, is also sprawling, hard to view, and offers the same “please explore me” effect.
“Effigy Mounds” in North America
The Serpent is definitely not the
only large animal-shaped mound in North America. There are many of them, called by
archaeologists “effigy mounds” (not the usual meaning of the term effigy).
“The effigy mounds appear … in
various parts of … the Mississippi
Valley. They are found in many of the southern
states; many appear in Illinois, but Wisconsin seems to have
been their peculiar field. Hundreds of
them were discovered in that state … In Wisconsin they represent innumerable
animal forms: the moose, buffalo, bear, fox, deer, frog, eagle, hawk, panther,
elephant, and various fishes, birds and even men and women. In a few instances, a snake. In Wisconsin
the effigies were usually situated on high ridges along the rivers or on the
elevated shores of the lake. Very few
effigy mounds have been found in Ohio
– though it is by far the richest field in other forms of mounds.” (Randall
There are, of course, large animal-shaped terraforms in other parts of the world, such as the Uffington and Westbury White Horses in Britain and the Nazca Lines in Peru.
So Ohio’s serpent mound is not unique. It is, however, impressive and well-done, and tends to strike people as mysterious and significant.
The Serpent Mound is a Giant Rorschach Blot
Whatever else it might be, the Serpent Mound reliably functions as a giant Rorschach blot. It appears significant but ambiguous. Everyone who is not content to admit that we don’t know its purpose tends to bring their own interpretation.
Here are four examples.
One example, roundly mocked in
Randall’s book, is the “amusing and ridiculous” “Garden of Eden fancy” (p. 93).
This theory, put forward by a Baptist minister of the day, is that the
Mound was built by God Himself to commemorate the eating of the forbidden fruit
and to warn mankind against the Serpent.
The oval object, which many people take to be an egg, is on this view the
forbidden fruit itself, which the Serpent is taking in its jaws as if to eat or
offer. Furthermore, the three streams
that come together nearby represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy
Spirit. “Pain and death are shown by the
convolutions of the serpent, just as a living animal would portray pain and
death’s agony … America is, in fact, the land in which Eden was located” (pp
Now, here’s another interpretation,
based on the accepted anthropology of the day: “Students of anthropology,
ethnology and archaeology seem to agree that among the earliest of religious
beliefs is that of animism or nature worship.
Next to this in the rising scale is animal worship and following it is
sun worship. Animism is the religion of
the savage and wilder races, who are generally wanderers. Animal worship is more peculiarly the
religion of the sedentary tribes … Sun worship is the religion of the village
tribes and is peculiar to the stage which borders upon the civilized. ‘Now judging from the circumstances and
signs,’ says Dr. Peet, ‘we should say that the
emblematic mound builders were in a transition state between the conditions of
savagery and barbarism and that they had reached the point where animal
worship is very prevalent’” (pp. 37 – 38).
This theory of the slow development
of man’s religion as they rise out of “savagery” into “barbarism” and finally
into “civilization” is reported with much more respect than the Baptist
pastor’s theory, but it is in fact just as fanciful. It is based on an overly neat-and-tidy and,
frankly, snobby view of the history of religion that was popular for many years
but that actual history does not support.
But, again, Rorschach blot.
Many other observors have linked
the Mound with its oval to the “egg and
serpent” origin mythology that crops up in many places in the world,
including Greece and India.
This theory receives many pages in Randall’s book.
To take just one more out of many other examples, on this very blog we learned from a book review that Graham Hancock’s latest book prominently features the Serpent Mound as part of his latest theory that North America is, in fact, the source of the Atlantis legends. He believes that the Mound is meant to represent the constellation Draco and was built during an era when Draco was ascendant. Or something like that.
I, too, have taken the Serpent Mound Rorschach test and here is what I see. I see more evidence that serpent mythology (with or without eggs) and the strong motivation to build large, long-lasting religious monuments are both universal in human culture. I personally think that these things didn’t arise independently in every corner of the world but were carried distributively and that they represent distant memories of certain events in human history, which are hinted at but not fleshed out in the early chapters of Genesis. However, I am not fool enough to think that the existence of Serpent Mound “proves” any of this. It is, as I said, a Rorschach blot.
Other Serpent Mounds Around the World
Otonabee Serpent Mound sits on the
north shore of Rice
Lake, not far from the city of Toronto, Ontario (Randall 114). It
is 189 feet long. The head faces “a few degrees north of east,” with an oval
burial mound in front of the head which could represent an egg (115).
In Scotland, there is the stone
serpent of Loch Nell:
“The mound is situated on a grassy
plain. The tail of the serpent rests
near the shore of Loch Nell, and the mound gradually rises seventeen to twenty
feet in height and is continued for 300 feet, ‘forming a double curve like the
letter S’ … the head lies at the western end [and] forms a circular cairn, on
which [in 1871] there still remained some trace of an altar, which has since
wholly disappeared, thanks to the cattle and herd boys. … The mound has been formed in such a
position that worshippers, standing at the altar, would naturally look eastward,
directly along the whole length of the great reptile, and across the dark lake
to the triple peaks of Ben Chruachan. This position must have been carefully
selected, as from no other point are the three peaks visible. General Forlong … says, ‘Here we have an
earth-formed snake, emerging in the usual manner from dark water, at the base,
as it were, of a triple cone – Scotland’s Mount Hermon, – just as we so
frequently meet snakes and their shrines in the East.’” (Randall pp. 121 – 122)
Speaking of Mount Hermon. This large, lone mountain sits at the northern end of the Golan Heights in Israel. It is so high that it is home to a winter ski resort. In ancient times, this region was called Bashan. It was known for its large and vigorous animals (the “bulls of Bashan”), and for its humanoid giants. Down to Hellenistic times, Bashan was a center for pagan worship (the Greek god Pan had a sacred site there). And guess what else it has? A serpent mound.
“The serpent mound of Bashan has ruins on its head and tail. The ruins are square (altars?) on top of small circular mounds” (Van Dorn 144).
This serpent mound is less than mile from a stone circle called Gilgal Rephaim (“Wheel of the Giants”). (Stone circles, as sacred sites, are also found throughout the world.) “The Wheel contains some 42,000 tons of partly worked stone, built into a circle 156 meters in diameter and 8 feet high on the outer wall. It is aligned to the summer solstice. The area is littered with burial chambers … If you go due North of the Wheel, [sighting] through the serpentine mound [and proceed] for 28 miles, you will run straight into the summit of Mt. Hermon” (Van Dorn 145).
Serpent, altar, circle, and sacred mountain. I don’t know about you, but the site in Golan sounds a lot scarier to me than Ohio’s Serpent Mound. However, it also makes me wonder whether people in Ohio – and Scotland – were trying to re-create this arrangement.
Sons of the gods by Douglas Van Dorn, Waters of Creation Publishing, Erie, Colorado,
Serpent Mound: Adams County, Ohio:
Mystery of the Mound and History of the Serpent: Various Theories of the Effigy
Mounds and the Mound Builders, by E.O. Randall (L.L., M., Secretary Ohio
State Archeological and Historical
Society; Reporter Ohio Supreme Court), Coachwhip
Publications, Greenville Ohio, 2013.
First published 1905. This book
is a compilation: “The effort has been made not merely to give a description,
indeed several descriptions, of Serpent Mound, but also to set forth a summary
of the literature concerning the worship of the serpent. … It is hoped that
this volume, while it may not solve the problem of the origin and purpose of
the Serpent Mound, will at least add to its interest and give the reader such
information as it is possible to obtain.” (page 5)
In this post I attempt to summarize Graham Hancock’s book Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization (1995). This book influenced the background for my novels. It also, in my mind, dovetails with Douglas Van Dorn’s biblical/archaeological research on giants in ways that I am sure Hancock never intended or imagined.
This post is only a summary. It will naturally be much less convincing than the book itself. My copy of Fingerprints runs 578 pages counting the bibliography and index. Hancock builds up to his thesis slowly, presenting many different lines of evidence and dropping mysterious hints to keep the reader intrigued. He also has to get into some fairly technical topics, particularly when talking about astronomy. I can’t do any of that in a 1,000-word post. So, like a bucket of cold water in the face, you will be treated to Hancock’s thesis in all its bizarre and fascinating glory.
Incredibly Sophisticated, Incredibly Ancient Maps
Hancock’s first two chapters are dedicated to the details of a number of old maps drawn up during the 1500s which show parts of South America that were undiscovered by Europeans at that time. More intriguingly, they show the coast of Antarctica as it appears under the ice. (This was before modern man’s discovery of Antarctica, and before seismic surveys revealed what lay beneath the ice.) The best-known of these is the Piri Reis map (drawn up in A.D. 1513), but there are others, such as the Orontes Finaeus map, the Mercator map, and the Buache map. All these mapmakers drew on older maps, which they compiled. Piri Reis, for example, had access to the Imperial Library at Constantinople, which is probably where he got the sources for his map.
The other amazing thing about these old maps is they often show locations in South America, for example, at accurate longitude and latitude.
The lesson that Hancock draws from these maps is this. Whatever source maps Piri Reis and others used, must themselves have been drawn up by an advanced seafaring civilization that had explored the world and knew how to project longitude and latitude. Amazingly, these seafarer/mathematicians apparently charted Antarctica at a time when it was not yet completely covered in ice. That makes their civilization, how do you say? Very, very old.
Ancient Astronomer/Engineers Again
Hancock then turns to the sophisticated ancient buildings that have baffled us in previous posts. He dedicates ten chapters to the Incan and pre-Incan civilization: the Nazca Lines, the amazing complex at Lake Titicaca, and the tradition that connects these to a bearded culture-bringer (the Viracocha), who came from over the sea.
Eleven more chapters describe the Central American cultures: their obsession with numbers, with calculating exact dates in the distant past and future, with forestalling the apocalypse (including by human sacrifice). They were also sophisticated astronomers. The pyramid complex at Teotihuacan, for example, appears to have been laid out as a scale model of the solar system.
And then there is ancient Egypt. Seventeen chapters are dedicated to it. There are many things to notice. Here are just a few: ancient Egyptian civilization seems to have appeared suddenly as a high civilization, complete with myths, history, engineering, and an obsession with boats. Overall, its history is one of slow decline and loss of knowledge, rather than slow buildup. (Interestingly, the same point has been made about ancient Sumer.)
The pyramids at Giza do not match the pyramids that are supposed to have been built immediately before and immediately after them. They are far more durable and sophisticated than these others. If we accept the received chronology, the Egyptians built some relatively crummy pyramids, then a few generations later built some amazingly good ones, then turned around and went back to building relatively low-quality pyramids again. Hancock suggests that instead, the Giza pyramids are much older than commonly thought. They were built with knowledge or technology that was subsequently lost. The comparatively crummy pyramids are attempts to copy the ones at Giza.
Hancock writes, “Robert Bauval’s evidence showed that the three pyramids [at Giza] were an unbelievably precise terrestrial map of the three stars of Orion’s belt, accurately reflecting the angles between each of them and even (by their respective sizes) providing some indication of their individual magnitudes. Moreover, this map extended outwards to the north and south to encompass several other structures on the Giza plateau … the Giza monuments were so arranged as to provide a picture of the skies … as they had looked – and only as they had looked – around the year 10,450 BC.” (page 356)
The Great Pyramid at Giza has a ratio of 2pi between its original height and the circumference of its base. This strengthens the argument that it was meant to represent a star (a circle). The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan has a ratio of 4pi between height and base circumference. Both of these pyramids had to have an odd angle of slope to accomplish this (52 degrees for Giza; 43.5 degrees for Teotihuacan), so it seems to have been intentional. Pi was supposedly not calculated correctly until it was done by Archimedes in the third century BC, but apparently the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Mexicans were familiar with it.
Where Hancock is going with all this is that people on both sides of the Atlantic got their amazing engineering, mathematical, and astronomical knowledge from an older “source” civilization. He thinks it was the same seafaring civilization that apparently charted Antarctica. This impression is strengthened by the Egyptian obsession with boats and by the Incan legends that say all this knowledge came from over the sea.
Is Hancock Arguing for Aliens?
Not in this book.
He has written several books about ancient mysteries. I have not read them all. He has now started writing fiction, and in the one novel of his that I have read, it becomes apparent that his interest in all this is decidedly New Age in character. The novel features an angelic/earth mother spirit guide, telepathic Neanderthals, the whole nine yards. So, I can’t swear that aliens won’t show up at some point. But that is not the thesis of Fingerprints. Hancock is arguing that there was a very advanced civilization of people well before 10,000 BC. Whether these people were taught by aliens, spirits, or some other stuff like that, he does not say, thankfully. Because, luckily, this book relies heavily on evidence.
So the ancient cartographers were not aliens, not even according to Hancock. But still we have a problem: Where was this civilization located? You don’t normally get an advanced civilization until you have a critical mass of arable land. In short, a continent. Hancock believes he has solved this problem. He believes there was such a mass of land, but that it has since undergone a cataclysm. And now we come to the really wild part of his thesis.
It’s the End of the World As They Knew It
Mythology about a period of cataclysms in ancient times is universal. Hancock dedicates four chapters to this alone. Flood myths, for example, are very common. But most cultures also record things like earthquakes, fire falling from the sky, the sun not rising for some long period of time, or an endless winter. Hancock discusses myths like this in some detail from the following cultures: Aztec, Sumerian, Greek, Inuit, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Pacific, Indian, Egyptian, Mayan, and Norse. It should not be hard for the reader to track down these myths. Some cultures (the Aztecs and the Hopi, for example) believe that disasters come at regular intervals and that each one ushers in a new age of the world.
Hancock believes that these myths are actually historical records (with all the usual caveats about them becoming garbled, etc.) of a period of geologic upheaval that happened within human history. I’ll put it in his own words:
“This geological theory was formulated by Professor Charles Hapgood and supported by Albert Einstein. What it suggests is a complete slippage of our planet’s thirty-mile-thick lithosphere over its nearly 8000-mile-thick central core, forcing large parts of the western hemisphere southward towards the equator and thence to the Antarctic Circle. This movement is not seen as taking place along a due north-south meridian but on a swivelling course – pivoting, as it were, around the central plains of what is now the United States. The result is that the north-eastern segment of North America (in which the North Pole was formerly located in Hudson’s Bay) was dragged southwards out of the Arctic Circle along with large parts of Siberia [which were dragged into the Arctic Circle].
“In the southern hemisphere, Hapgood’s model shows the landmass that we now call Antarctica, much of which was previously at temperate or even warm latitudes, being shifted in its entirety inside the Antarctic Circle. The overall movement is seen as having been in the region of 30 degrees (approximately 2000 miles) and as having been concentrated, in the main, between the years 14,500 BC and 12,500 BC – but with massive aftershocks on a planetary scale continuing at widely-separated intervals down to about 9500 BC.” (page 471)
So that’s the thesis. Here are the things it explains:
Why North America was once covered with glaciers, centered around Hudson Bay, and why they suddenly started melting.
Why, during the same period of time, Siberia was apparently not covered in glaciers
Why there is evidence that the climate was once much warmer in parts of Siberia. We find flash-frozen mammoths with temperate or even tropical plants still in their mouths and stomachs. (Actually, I still don’t understand how mammoths could be flash-frozen even with Hancock’s thesis. But at least it offers some explanation.)
Why there is evidence that the climate was once much warmer in Antarctica as well.
According to Hancock’s theory, the survivors of this advanced civilization that previously existed on what is now Antarctica fled their homeland, taking their science with them.
They settled in other parts of the world and tried to rebuild.
Hancock also thinks that they deliberately seeded myths and cults to preserve knowledge and to draw people’s attention to the processional cycle of the constellations because they wanted to warn them. They believed that geological disasters like this occurred cyclically in concert with celestial events. He believes this is why the pyramids were built, for example. A good chunk of his book is about this, but I don’t have time to relate it here.
What’s a Christian Writer to Do With All This?
First of all, it is not possible to integrate everything. It just isn’t.
To take just one example from above, if the earth’s crust took 2,000 years to slip, how did mammoths come to be flash frozen? I have no idea. I don’t think anybody does, whatever their theory.
To take another example, Hancock’s thesis requires that after the age of cataclysms, there were human survivors in scattered parts of the world. These were then visited by refugees from the mother civilization, who taught them things, and they remember these culture-bringers in their mythology. You cannot make this work perfectly with the idea that at one point there was a universal flood that wiped out all humankind except four couples, and that the flood myths are memories of that.
Every culture has stories of culture-bringers (human or divine) who taught them to do things that are basic to that culture. Most cultures with a flood myth have the survivors of the flood landing right in that culture’s homeland and becoming the direct ancestors of that culture. Most of them don’t have a section in there where the survivors land somewhere very far away, and then their descendants travel a really long way to get to the current homeland. Most peoples believe that they live at the mythic center of the world. So you have to take these things into account. Every origin myth cannot be true in all its details.
That said, here is what I, as a Christian, have attempted to do with Hancock’s thesis and more importantly with the evidence that inspired it.
What I appreciate about Hancock is his attempt to take seriously the many lines of evidence that human beings were familiar with advanced mathematics, engineering, and astronomy long ages before we are told that human civilization started. This fits in, far better than the received “cave man” picture, with the ancient world as it is hinted at in the early chapters of Genesis. There we see civilization taking off like rocket, apparently with writing and record-keeping, and flourishing until it is destroyed by the flood.
Hancock’s theory of earth crust slippage does not contradict the Genesis account either. It is not hard to imagine an age of cataclysms leading up to the great flood. We are not told that this happened, but then Genesis, with its laser focus on redemptive history, does not tell us a great many of the things we would like to know. If we imagine earth crust slippage culminating in a worldwide flood, we end up with almost the same picture as that painted in Fingerprints. The only difference is that the amazing monuments at Giza and other places could not have been built by refugees from a mother civilization. They would have to have been built by Noah’s descendants trying to recover lost knowledge … or by the almost-unknown-to-us civilizations before the flood.
Genesis: Even More Daring than Hancock
Genesis does not give us a complete picture of the antediluvian world. It tells us only a few major names and events with very little explanation or context. We are not told how long the antediluvian period lasted; what the world population was before the flood; what the people or animals looked like or their relative sizes; what kind of technology existed; whether there were cities. As a result, we tend to picture Noah and his family, almost all alone, out in the middle of a desert (inspired by the way the Middle East appears today), with a bunch of modern-day animals. But we aren’t told that’s how it was. We aren’t told much at all. In fact, we don’t have – anywhere – any reliable sources that can tell us much about the very ancient world.
Genesis does, however, tell us one very weird thing which fits in well with worldwide myths but which Hancock’s thesis basically ignores.
Interesting as I find Fingerprints of the Gods, it is of course not perfect. Among other problems, it fails to take seriously the universal testimony of human culture that there used to be “gods.” Hancock falls prey (at least in this book) to the materialist notion that anything attributed to gods must be explainable by smarter people with higher technology. Of course, this smuggles in the idea that most ancient humans were stupid and gullible and would apply the “gods” label to anything they didn’t understand. This kind of snobbery dogs Hancock. For example, he quotes with approval a source that wonders how the Mayans could have had such advanced calendars when they hadn’t even invented the wheel.
Genesis, on the other hand, does not patronize ancient humans. Shockingly, it vindicates their myths. It is recorded in Genesis chapter 6 that the “sons of God” (some kind of heavenly beings, members of the divine council) came down to earth and intermarried with human women, and that their offspring were giants.
Obviously, that is a stunning claim. I can’t blame you if you’re not convinced of it on first hearing. Some day I will deal with it in more detail in another post (one that summarizes Douglas Van Dorn’s book). For now, I just want to say a few things about this idea as it relates to Hancock’s thesis.
Every culture, worldwide, has myths about gods and giants. There is a huge body of mythology about this stuff, and it usually shows up in the form of origin stories and tales that purport to be about historical rulers. No doubt the ideas of gods and giants, and many other themes from mythology, are a deep part of the human mental furniture. But this does not necessarily mean they are not also memories of historical events. How and why did this particular furniture get in our particular living room? Perhaps people did not get these ideas just from plumbing the depths of the human psyche. We might want to take these stories seriously as memories of historical events, since we are taking seriously the stories of floods and cataclysms that show up in the same cultures, and often in the very same narratives.
And, if you are still with me, taking seriously the idea of gods and giants might also give us our answer as to how people managed to build incredibly sophisticated monuments out of megaliths. Imagine a world in which people typically live almost a thousand years (per the ages given in Genesis) … in which ten or twelve generations can be alive at the same time, so knowledge is not lost … in which people are smarter and healthier than we are now, since there has been less genetic decay … and in which some of these people are actual giants. All of a sudden it starts to sound … maybe … almost possible. Maybe you and I could build the Giza pyramids too, if we had a thousand years to do it in and if we had intelligent giants helping (even directing?) us.
Now it’s your turn. I am posting this 24 hours late (I usually post on Friday, not Saturday), and even with the extra time, I realize this post is loosely written. This is such a big topic, worthy of an essay weeks or months in the making … not to say years. I did not spend years, months or even weeks on this post (although I have spent a few years thinking about all this stuff). My goal is not to make a watertight argument, just to sketch out some intriguing possibilities. Still, if you find problems with the post, point them out in the comments section (alongside your laudatory comments, of course) and I’ll do my best to tighten and polish it.
Occam’s Razor is the logical principle that states that,
when there are two competing explanations for a given phenomenon, we should
choose the explanation that is simpler – i.e., is less elaborate, introduces
fewer hypotheticals, conditions, or “assumptions.”
We all use this principle without realizing it (more on this later), but the first time I remember consciously applying it was in high school.
I was given an assignment to write a research paper on anything I wanted. What I wanted was to write about this thing I had vaguely heard of, which I called “weird science.” By this I meant wild, speculative theories, research into cryptids, and things like that. In practice, my “weird science” paper turned out to be, basically, a book report on Chariots of the Gods.
The Ancient Aliens Theory
Chariots of the Gods was published in 1968 and written by Erich von Däniken. It advanced the theory that superintelligent extraterrestrials colonized earth long ago and were responsible for various mysterious or hard-to-explain structures built by ancient people, such as the pyramids at Giza, the pyramid/observatories throughout MesoAmerica, the Nazca Lines, etc.
Since the publication of Chariots, this idea has made it into fiction numerous times. There was the movie Stargate (1994), which focused on ancient Egypt, and which I love because its hero is a linguist. (On first contact with a group of strangers, a military officer shoves him forward and says, “You’re a linguist, aren’t you? Go talk to them.”) More recently there was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). (Spoiler: it’s an alien skull). These ideas have now been made into a TV series (Ancient Aliens), and in fact there is a whole ancient aliens interest crowd out there now.
I Knew Better, But Couldn’t Explain Why
But reading through Chariots of the Gods was my first time to stare these ideas straight in the face, as it were. And of course, I thought they were cool, even if some of the evidence was a little weak. Von Däniken made much of a particular Mayan sarcophagos engraving that he said “clearly” showed an astronaut reclining inside a small spaceship, complete with controls, microphone, et al. If you’ve seen the panel, it’s really kind of hard to tell what the heck it is, beyond a human seated in an awkward position. See this article, by a fellow WordPress blogger. There you will see a picture of the original panel, a copy of Von Däniken’s diagram and “explanation” of it, plus a convincing argument that the whole thing is far better explained by Mayan cosmology.
Things like the Nazca lines were a little harder to explain (or at least to guess the purpose of), given that it is literally impossible to tell what they portray without viewing them from an airplane.
Anyway, weak evidence or not, I thought von Däniken made a compelling case. Compelling, but not plausible. In other words, there was actually no way to falsify the claims. The theory was logically consistent. But it was also, how do you say it, a little bit … elaborate. (Or, as Bertie Wooster describes it, “A word that begins with an e and means being a damn sight too clever.”) It was fun to think about as a theory, but didn’t seem terribly likely from the point of view of wanting to find out what actually happened.
The Razor to the Rescue!
This was where Occam’s Razor came in. I was relieved to learn that I didn’t have to accept Chariots’ premise just because I couldn’t find a logical inconsistency. Occam’s Razor to the rescue! One theory to explain ancient structures required an entire extraterrestrial civilization capable of space travel; another, equally logical, only required me to believe that ancient human beings were smarter than we give them credit for. Problem solved. I wrote the book report and went on my merry way.
The Razor Left some Loose Ends
Except that the problem was only sort of solved. The overly elaborate explanation didn’t ring true, but my simpler one left an awful lot of questions unanswered.
It didn’t tell us anything about how the ancient people managed to make the pyramids at Giza; the jigsaw-puzzle fitted megaliths at Machu Picchu and Saksaywaman; the 1,000-ton megaliths at Baalbek, Lebanon; the heads at Easter Island, etc. Whatever techniques they used, we couldn’t get the same results today. And why would anyone choose to use huge megaliths in any building project, assuming that handling megaliths was as difficult back then as it is today? Saying “they were smarter than we are” might be true, but it just passes the mystery of how it was done from E.T. back to ancient people again, sort of like a hot potato, without really clearing anything up.
Why were ancient people so interested in astronomy? Why did they build giant drawings that are best viewed from above? For the “gods” to see, perhaps. But where did they get this idea of “gods” who might actually visit? (No, I am not going back to the aliens. Hang on.) Were they smart enough to lay out perfect geometrical structures that covered miles, yet dumb enough to believe in “gods” on zero evidence (assuming their evidence was the same as we have today)?
These questions are not going to go away, because the structures themselves are there. This is not like an unconfirmed UFO sighting. Anyone can go and look at these structures, marvel at the mathematical and engineering ability that went into them, and confirm that, in some of the cases, to this day we don’t know how the heck it was done.
Whatever theory we come up with to answer these questions is likely to sound just as implausible as a race of aliens.
When the Razor Cuts Off Too Much
And here we come up against a limitation of Occam’s Razor. The Razor, useful as it is and cool as its name undoubtedly sounds, does not help us distinguish between plausible and implausible assumptions. Our sense of which theory is “simpler” depends to a large extent on our sense of which theory sounds more likely. In other words, there’s a short, slippery slope sometimes from Occam’s Razor to Confirmation Bias.
What is more plausible: that aliens visited earth thousands of years ago, or that ancient humans were at least twice as smart as we are today? Whichever sounds more likely will look like the “simpler” explanation. (Of course, given those options, we might start casting desperately about for a third one.)
If it is an article of faith with … someone … (I name no names) that human beings started out as, essentially, animals, and that throughout all of history, humans have been getting steadily smarter and more technologically advanced, then, in a minute … that person … might find themselves invoking aliens. Because when confronted with the amazing engineering feats of the distant past, aliens are going to seem like a more likely culprit than those people that we think of as cave people.
There is another view of history that goes at least some of the way toward explaining these ancient mysteries without invoking aliens at all. I’ll write about it in a later post.