Ronald D Fritze. Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions. Reaktion Books, 2009.
This book, by a history professor at the Athens State University in Alabama, examines a range of fringe ideas in history and archaeology, set out in a series of broad themes; Atlantis; early Old World discoveries of America; the racist cosmologies of Identity Christians and the Nation of Islam; the fantasies of Eric Daniken and their ilk, and the disputes around claims that classic Greece was greatly inspired by Middle Eastern, and in particular, Egyptian culture.
In the approach to history there have always been two grand narratives, the older of these harks back to a lost golden age, Eden before the fall, the Golden Age of Hesiod or the Satya Yuga of the Hindus. In more recent times a second narrative, that of progress up from ape man, cave man, savagery, barbarism and civilisation emerged. These two themes constitute the basis on which much of the pseudohistory discussed in this book developed.
The vanished Golden Age surfaces in tales of Atlantis, Lemuria and other lost continents discussed in the first chapter. Though Atlantis was created by Plato as a dystopia, perhaps the original evil empire, whose depredations were halted by the plucky little Athenians, and whose evil inhabitants were given a deserved come uppance by the gods, in the work of many later writers it became the Ur-civilisation, the source of all human arts and culture. For occultist writers such as H. P. Blavatsky and her followers it became the home of supernatural beings possessed of psychic powers even more amazing than her own.
This myth of the Golden Age clearly also inspires a couple of other topics discussed here, Charles Hapgood's notion of the lost civilisation of the 'Sea Kings', a set of prehistoric James Cooks who went circumnavigating the world at some remote age when Antarctica was free from ice. Perhaps even more amazing claim than that was the notion that despite the total destruction of the Sea Kings' worlds in some great catastrophe caused by the shifting of the poles, their maps (or copies of copies of copies of the same) managed to survive the millennia down to the 16th century, when one was acquired by the Turkish Admiral Piri Reis. The myth of the lost civilisation is now kept going by writers like Graham Hancock and Robert Bauvel, along with others not mentioned here.
The view that human ancestors, or the various subaltern ethic groups were 'savages' who couldn't possibly have done anything on their own account, no doubt helped to inspire the claims of Eric Daniken, his predecessors and successors, that just about anything interesting in the ancient world was constructed by extraterrestrials. By arguing along these lines writers like Daniken and Zecharia Sitchin were able to meld these two narratives together. Like many a traditional golden age, there was a time when the gods, now euhemised into extraterrestrials walked the earth with humans, and helped convert the near-animal humans into people.
The progressivist narrative also fueled some of the theories of early old world colonisation of the Americas, obviously the 'savages' who now lived there, not being white folks, could not have built a variety of structures found there, these must have been the work of noble civilisations from the old world. Which one depends on the ethnic background of the claimant.
For centuries in Europe, the lost golden age, the time and place of ancient wisdom was located in Pharonic Egypt. A collection of esoteric writings were identified as the work of Hermes Trismegistus and assumed to be of vast age. In the late 16th century this idea was discredited by the scholar Isaac Casaubon, and Egypt began to slip down the social scale. However the idea of Egypt as being the source of all civilisation was re-established in the early 20th century by diffusionist writers like Grafton Elliot Smith. Its latest manifestation is in the writings of Martin Bernal, the son of the communist physicist and popular science writer John Desmond Bernal. Martin Bernal, in books like Black Athena has argued that classical Greek civilisation owed a huge debt to Egypt and other middle eastern states, an idea which has sparked furious controversy (contrary to the title of the book Bernal never claimed that the Egyptians were black).
Another central theme of writings in fringe history and archaeology is that of reading ancient myths as literal historical works. Emmanuel Velikovsky combined this with another old, though more recent belief, catastrophism. In the early 19th century as the evidence of geology began to disprove the traditional biblical chronology of Archbishop Ussher, attempts were made to reconcile them, by positing a succession of creations, each destroyed in a catastrophe, the most recent being Noah's flood. By the end of the 19th century this scheme was replaced by uniformatism, the idea that geological changes were produced by gradual processes over vast lengths of time.
While uniformatism is now much amended by our knowledge of the role of dramatic events such as cometary impacts, massive volcanic eruptions etc., Velikovksy's catastrophism was extreme by any standards, arguing that the planet Venus started out as a comet spewed out by Jupiter, and both it and Mars nearly collided with the Earth in biblical times. One cannot help feeling that the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust may have had some role in the creation of such grand-guignol visions. Velikovsky also tapped into the catastrophist tradition which conveniently explained why various 'advanced' ancient civilisations were conspicuous by their absence in today's world.
Other fringe ideas discussed by Fritze are the product of racism and ethnic chauvinism. The two examples he chooses are those of Identity Christianity and the Nation of Islam. Both divided the world into ethnic battle grounds, between the (Aryan in one case, Black in the other) Children of Light, and the opposite Children of Darkness. It is these two that Fritze designates 'pseudo-religions', having little connection with historic Christianity or Islam. However it has to be said that there has been a long tradition of anti-Semitism in mainstream Christianity, only systematically challenged since the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The notion of pseudo-religion strikes me as going beyond anything that a scholarly interpretation of history could attempt. There may be reasonable hope of building up a consensus view of some basic facts of history, or at least an agreement about basic ways of interpreting historical documents or artifacts, but the notion of a pseudo-religion is a theological one.
I don't know if this idea has any connection with what might strike the British reader as the major lacuna in this book, the absence of any critique of the by and away most popular false science and fake history in the United States, young earth creationism. The fact that the author is a professor in Bible belt Alabama may have a bearing on this. Also absent are the 'Holy Blood and Holy Grail' stuff, or our pet British topic: leys and mystical archaeology.
The material in here ranges from, what would hope to be self evident nonsense such as the claims of Daniken etc. and Velikovsky; through stuff which is just about possible; through the not impossible but not proven such as early Old World contacts with the Americas; to topics such as the role of Middle Eastern cultures in the development of classical Greece which would require highly specialised knowledge to comment on. Whether all these should be classed together is a moot point.
Though much of this will be familiar to long term Magonia readers, for much of this has been discussed and analysed several times before, in several cases in more detail, there is still much of interest. -- Peter Rogerson.