Schliemann in Space

The World of Classics Has Its Own Version of Flat Earthers— Brought to Your Living Room by the History Channel

“Ancient Roman artifact unearthed in the Roman baths at Bath Spa, UK.” From Chris Goldberg’s Flickr.

On February 17, 2017, former Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving revealed to his teammates Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson his belief that, even though a basketball may be round, the world is in fact very flat. During All Star Weekend, Irving doubled down on his theory and rival Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green voiced his support for Irving’s skepticism, citing as evidence his inability to capture the earth’s curvature in a photo. Rapper B.O.B. has expressed similar concerns. In June, Green and Irving competed against one another in the NBA Finals for the third time in three years, where the Warriors took the title of (flat-)world champions.

Irving incurred criticism for his theories, notably from one of America’s most popular scientific voices, Neil deGrasse Tyson. In an interview with TMZ, Tyson remarked,

“If he wants to think Earth is flat, go ahead. As long as he continues to play basketball and not become head of any space agency. We’ll try to convince him along the way, because I think it’s better when we have an educated electorate than a scientifically illiterate electorate. Just better all around. But it’s a free country and you can say and think — plus he’s college educated right?”

For the scientist, there are larger issues at play. Flat-earthers like Kyrie Irving are a political problem, indicative of a scientifically uninformed voter base responsible for making decisions with global consequences. In Irving’s case, Tyson is surprised that a college education was not able to rid him of this worldview. Irving spent one year at Duke University, which seemed only to ignite his skepticism. In a conversation with ESPN’s Arash Markazi, Irving stated, “I’ve seen a lot of things that my educational system said was real and turned out to be completely fake. I don’t mind going against the grain in terms of my thoughts and what I believe.” Although he may be going against the grain of the scientific majority, Irving is certainly not alone in his beliefs. The International Flat Earth Society has existed since the 1950s, and the similarly named International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS) is an active forum with daily posts concerning the global, political and racial effort to maintain the illusion of earth’s roundness. Eric Dubay, the President of IFERS, had a youtube channel with 108,474 subscribers. About himself, Dubay writes, “I’m a 34 year old American living in Thailand where I teach Yoga and Wing Chun part-time while exposing the New World Order full-time.” I feel as if The Matrix may have played a part in the development of his identity. Nevertheless, that these NBA superstars and Youtube personalities subscribe to the flat-earth theory is less of a consequence for Neil deGrasse Tyson. The more serious issues arise when flat-earthers become the heads of space agencies.

It was also back on February 17, 2017 the US Senate confirmed Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to become the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The New York Times labels Pruitt a “climate change denialist,”and believes that President Trump’s support of Pruitt reflected his commitment to dismantle Obama-era regulations on emissions of Carbon Dioxide.

Flat-earthers and climate change denialists alike often see themselves as beacons of truth fighting against a violently maintained yet false objectivity. In a piece written for the National Review, Pruitt himself takes on “green-energy advocacy groups using…officials as puppets to further their extreme agendas” and compares those willing to stand up against these cabals to US founding fathers such as Jefferson and Adams. The language of climate change denial is often conspiratorial or racist, but always distrusting of traditional expertise. Climate change deniers have argued that their very label, “climate change denier” connotes Holocaust Denial, and is an attempt to create a dichotomy that forces one to pick sides between the scientists and the Nazis.

The politicization of scientific disciplines is conducive to conspiratorial thinking. Issues of climate change, medicine, and military technology often dominate national discussions. The Economics and Statistics Administration of the US Department of Commerce catalogues the benefits of STEM education in its own publication, citing its successes in employment and financial compensation. Politicians of both parties stress the importance of STEM fields, explicitly at the cost of the humanities. Neil deGrasse Tyson himself is vocal critic of philosophy and has referred to philosophical questioning as “a pointless delay in our progress.” If one does not trust the government, often the source of scientific funding, why would one trust the results of scientific thinking?

But where does that leave Classics? Is the field too small or of too little political importance that it attracts no radical epistemological dissenters? Not so. With its roots in science fiction and the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Ancient Astronaut theory contends that ancient civilizations all around the world were visited in the remote past by extraterrestrial beings, who played a guiding role in the formation of language, culture, and technology. These physical beings would then be either misinterpreted by primitive man as divine forces, or represented abstractly in art and myth. If we, as modern students of the ancient world, were to take the words and art of the ancients at face value, or simply interpret them as something other than religious superstitions, we would have a greater understanding not only of human history on earth, but the nature of the cosmos and our role in it.

In 1968, Erich von Däniken, a Swiss hotelier, publishes Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, traditionally seen as the impetus for the theory. Unsurprisingly, he would face immediate criticism from traditional academics. Clifford Wilson’s Crash Go the Chariots and Ronald Story’s The Space Gods Revealed, book length refutations of von Däniken’s works, appeared in the following years. The cover of Wilson’s book prominently displays his academic degrees, and Story’s book has an aggressive introduction from Carl Sagan. Even though his critics are numerous, von Däniken claims that his books have been translated into 32 different languages and have sold more than 63 million copies.

The History Channel would begin to air Ancient Aliens in 2010, after a one-off documentary on the subject proved popular. This was my first exposure to Ancient Astronaut theory, and I assume the same is true for others. Propelled by meme-force and the opportunity for a humorous reinforcement of social epistemology, the show has now run for twelve seasons and will return for its thirteenth season on April 27, 2018. Despite the breadth of topics discussed in the 135 episodes, the show organizes and presents its competing “knowledges” consistently, but strangely. A talking head of traditional academic (i.e. a PhD holder currently employed by a university) will provide a historical backdrop for a ruined temple complex, or the folkloristic explanation of a myth. Then, often with little difference in presentation, an Ancient Astronaut theorist will present their side of the issue. A subtitle will often display their qualifications to speak on the matter: most frequently publications by non-academic presses and the occasional unspecified graduate degree.

Literal interpretations of ancient texts are often the backbone of the Ancient Astronaut theory as applied to Classics. Von Däniken’s Greek is limited, as he himself admits in Odyssey of the Gods, his book length treatise on the influence of extraterrestrials on Ancient Greece. For this work, he does not cite any Greek examples, but rather pulls from various translations from across the centuries. In discussing Hesiod, von Däniken juxtaposes two translations of the Theogony, Heinreiche Voss’ 1817 translation and Walter Marg’s 1970 translation. As for the Greek text, he remarks that “The Ancient Greek some of us may have toiled over at school is not sufficient to judge which version is more accurate” (von Däniken 51). For von Däniken, this comparison serves to illustrate the influence of time on the meaning of words. He questions, “What will the translation sound like in 2100? And what was the original sense and meaning in Hesiod’s time?” (51–2). Like Hesiod himself on Helicon, von Däniken tries to navigate between the truth and the lies that sound like the truth. How can you compare translations of Greek without looking at Greek? In citing Apollonius’ catalogue of Argonauts in the Argonautica, von Däniken states, “I will mainly draw upon this translation, now over 200 years old. The 1779 translation is is not yet imbued with our modernist attitudes and reflects Apollonius’ original flowery style” (von Däniken 11). Von Däniken’s philological efforts are both opportunistic and cynical. He conservatively uses old translations of Classical texts because of their perceived greater faithfulness to the original language, yet also uses them to fight the biases that he believes characterizes mainstream scholarship. Like a Unitarian, he believes that a traditional Homer did exist, who was blind and responsible for both the Iliad and Odyssey (von Däniken 123). At other times he is more Analytical, and discusses the influence of the Argo myth on the Odyssey (von Däniken 34).

Hesiod, Plato, and Homer dominate the Ancient Astronaut discussion of Classics. The television show investigates Hesiod’s depictions of the gigantomachy in its episode “Aliens and Mysterious Mountains,” and in this episode one can see their philological methodology. Giorgio Tsoukalos, perhaps the most immediately recognizable Ancient Astronaut theorist, discusses the splendor of Mount Olympus. For Tsoukalos, Hesiod’s “bright dances” of the Gods are actually the twinkling bulbs of technology, and the abode of the gods is actually a “functioning military outpost in the mountains for an all out war between extraterrestrials.” Hesiod was not writing of Olympians fighting Titans, but rather aliens fighting aliens. The grounds of his argument, even though they are misinformed, are philological in nature. Although he does not quote Hesiod’s Greek, this is traditional close-reading practice that yields a non-traditional result. The show renders this Olympian battle technology as such:

ἴδμεν ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγειν ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα, 
ἴδμεν δ᾽εὖτ᾽ ἐθέλωμεν ἀληθέα γηρύσασθαι (Hes. Th. 27–8)

Heinrich Schliemann serves as the model for the Ancient Astronaut Classicist. In “Aliens and Mysterious Mountains,” David Childress remarks, “For many years, historians believed that the Greek stories were complete myth. But then in 1870, the German Archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered Troy. So now we know some of the Greek stories are genuine.” Childress, a self proclaimed “rogue adventurer,” sees in Schliemann a justification for his mode of investigation. One can mine classical authors such as Homer for historical fact, even if modern historiographical conventions say otherwise. If one can follow the text of Homer to find the city of Troy, what else in his works has modern scholarship ignorantly deemed “myth?” Is the eidolon of Aeneas based on misinterpreted hologram technology? Von Däniken writes of the “consistent and convincing” research of Hans-Helmut and Armin Wolf, German scholars who attempted to sort out Homer’s geography through textual clues in the Odyssey. Ancient astronaut theorists liken themselves to these adventurer, rebel scholar types. Academia says one thing, you should go out and do another.

In the episode “The Einstein Factor,” the show’s experts weigh in on whether or not extraterrestrials had contact with some of history’s greatest minds. The episode discusses Socrates’ daimon, and questions if the daimon is a product of mental illness, or contact with the realm of the metaphysical. One cannot help but notice a sort of self-justification in this episode. The people one thinks to be disturbed are instead the real intellectuals who have tapped into a new truth. In “The von Däniken Legacy,” an episode of the series about the writer himself, Jason Martell states, “All the great thinkers of our time and in the past have been people who challenged the norm. So Erich von Däniken really challenged the norm of academia to show that these things we thought of as just religious myths actually have scientific merit.” For the Ancient Astronaut theorists, the modern modes of interpretation may be insufficient for understanding the ancient world. In Odyssey of the Gods, von Däniken lays forth a rather self-aware critique of his own work as well as the products of traditional historical and humanistic research:

However, I admit that my theory has its blemishes and that some of what I propose could be explained differently. But at the end of the day, what is the truth? Are the analyses by commentators in the past 100 years correct? Their conclusions convincing? Do they provide-as the scientific community simply assumes- a proven body of knowledge? Or is what they view as scientifically sound just an interpretation dictated by contemporary perspectives? (von Däniken 36)

Classics regularly incurs this criticism, even in more traditional academic writing. Martin Bernal in his initially controversial Black Athena called upon scholars to recognize the “penetration of racism and continental chauvinism into all our historiography or philosophy of writing history.” Bella Zweig (now Bella Vivante) has argued that Western, male, and Atheno-centric biases “seriously circumscribe” the study of women in the Ancient world. Von Däniken’s questions are legitimate, even if we do not agree with his answers.

Unlike Wilson, Story, and many others after them, I did not aim here to counter von Däniken’s arguments with traditional academic methodology. I do not believe that this accomplishes anything; so much of the Ancient Astronaut theory is motivated by a distrust of the results produced by these modes of inquiry. It is a rebellion against these more traditional epistemologies. Draymond Green knows that pictures of a round earth exist, but if he dismisses the methodology that produces that evidence or believes it to be falsified, then the evidence is worthless. It is on this aspect where Neil deGrasse Tyson’s question on Kyrie Irving’s flat worldview seems misguided. “He’s college educated right?” the scientist asks in the TMZ interview. Simple exposure to the truth (or rather, what Tyson considers to be the truth) in an academic setting is not sufficient. “And our experts who straitjacket their brains in endless conferences and discussions, and who quote from each other’s work all the time so as to ‘remain scientific’ cannot come up with any better explanation” writes von Däniken with a noticeable hostility (48). For Ancient Astronaut theorists, academia is exclusive and dismissive, and the model of “the outsider” is powerful to those who already see themselves as excluded. Heinrich Schliemann did not follow the traditional order, and he discovered Troy. Socrates saw things differently and Athens killed him for it.

In March 2018, an EPA memo was leaked that provides talking points to stress the “clear gaps” in our understanding of climate change. Kyrie Irving, now a Boston Celtic, is releasing a shoe, emblazoned with the All Seeing Eye and a manic script to reflect his skepticism. All 500 tickets to the 2017 Flat-Earth International Conference have long since sold out, but tickets to the 2018 Alien Con, promoted by the History Channel and featuring appearances from Tsoukalos and von Däniken, are still available.


Harrison Troyano is a graduate student in Classics at Fordham University. The 13th season of Ancient Aliens premieres April 27th on the History Channel.