Archive for the ‘Ancient History’ Category

Link – Griffins were not Dinosaurs

June 7, 2016

I don’t normally post links or reblog, but this was so good (and my latest effort so held up by external factors I won’t bore anyone with) that I had to post it. I’ve always been sceptical about claims that Dragon mythology is based on Dinosaur fossils, and this post by Mark Witton roundly debunks one of these – that the Griffin of Ancient Greece was inspired by real Protoceratops fossils. This is reminiscent of similar attempts to explain away folklore using modern science, like the specious link between the disease porphyria and vampirism. Science can explain big chunks of folklore, like the ‘old hag’ or ‘night mare’ (indeed vampires too) being explicable by means of sleep paralysis. But people in the past, indeed people now, are more than capable of inventing things from whole cloth, and we still need to apply critical thought to convenient explanations like the Dinosaur/Griffin.


November 11, 2014


Not *that* Necronomicon…


I happened to read the other day that author Anthony Horowitz (of ‘Alex Rider’ fame) claims to have read the Necronomicon. Seriously. Yes, the clearly fictional book conceived by H.P. Lovecraft for his horror stories. He’s read it. How, you might ask? Well, it turns out that there are books out there purporting to be the real Necronomicon. Not just one person, but several, have attempted to reconstruct Lovecraft’s imaginary tome. Though these can certainly be seen purely as hoaxes intended to deceive the reader, I’m not actually against the idea of such things. My fondness for the almost-certainly-made-up vampire killing kits is well documented on this blog. I believe that at least some of those were created as ‘honest’ deceptions, like the lies told and the illusions made by a magician or mentalist, and the same is possible here. The use of hoax as a promotional tool is an old trick. As I learned only recently in the British Library’s wonderful ‘Terror and Wonder’ exhibition, Horace Walpole originally claimed that his novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764) was a translation of an original that he had found, dated 1529. Partly because he had been called on his deception, and partly because once success had been found, he wanted to claim full ownership of the text, his second edition gave him as the true author.


There is an added element in this case, which is that the main focus of at least one of these Necronomicon attempts (the ‘Simon’ Necronomicon) is actually attempting to lay down systems of ritual magical practice based upon Lovecraft’s fiction. This required that they be written as though genuine, even if the practitioner does not believe in their objective reality (as Satanists generally don’t) outside of their ‘ritual chamber’. Whatever their intent, people who create hoax literature must be surprised but pleased when others actually fall for them rather than enjoying them as a form of fiction. Regardless of the rights and wrongs, such things do need to be debunked, so that anyone who might encounter them are aware of their true origins.


The Church of Satan link above does a good job of summarising and debunking these hoax/invented Necronomicon books. Suffice to say that there is simply no evidence for a grimoire of this nature, and certainly not one that uses obvious variants of Lovecraft’s names and references. Just in case Horowitz was referring to some otherwise unknown tome, I thought I’d try to work out whether he might be referring to one of these well-known hoaxes, or something else (in which case I wouldn’t be able to do any debunking).


Horowitz stated in the interview that he’d used a line from the mysterious tome in his own prologue. The line is this;


Ia sakkath. Iak sakkakh. Ia sha xul.


I had a bit of trouble pinning this down, because the spelling has been changed. But guess where this comes from? That’s right, one of the hoax Necronomicon publications. Specifically, it’s from ‘The Text of Urilia’, which appears on page 127 of the ‘Simon’ Necronomicon referred to in the Church of Satan link (you can find this in pdf form, though I suspect it’s in breach of copyright so won’t link it here);



I AM before ABSU.


I AM before ANU.

I AM before KIA.

I AM before all things.









There you have it.

I’m pretty sure that Horowitz wasn’t telling porkies to sell what was then his latest book (if you happen to read this Mr Horowitz, please do comment or drop me a line). I suspect that he’s read one of them at some point in the past and been taken in by it. Or possibly, he is stretching the truth and using the existence of the ‘Simon’ Necronomicon to link his book back to the Lovecraftian tradition. This would be rather naughty, but again, somewhat akin to Walpole’s marketing approach. Whether conscious or not, tying his book into the Necronomicon would fire the imagination of his young readers just as the marketing for films like ‘Paranormal Activity’ does by implying or claiming a basis in ‘true life’. In case there might be any doubt, I thought I’d track down the version he’s likely to have read.

Easter a pagan festival? Eggstremely Unlikely!

March 31, 2013

As alluring as the idea is to atheists like me, the claim that Easter was derived from a pre-existing pagan festival in honour of the goddess ‘Eostre’ turns out to have very little basis indeed. It amounts to one reference. CJ Romer has this tied up on his blog;

Eostre never existed???: why Easter is NOT a Pagan Holiday

CJ is a Christian, so in case you think there’s bias at work, here’s another three-part debunk from a Neo-Pagan writer;

Eostre: The Making of a Myth

An instructive lesson in not buying into claims just becuase they agree with our (pagan or atheist) preconceptions and biases.

You’ve Got Red On You

December 22, 2012

‘Santa vs Zombies’ by Victor Negreiro

(Nothing to do with my title, which is a ‘Shaun of the Dead’ reference)

Why is Santa Claus’ tunic red? Because of Coca-Cola? S’Nope! To conceal the wounds he sustains in battle, of course! OK, perhaps not. But that explanation really has been offered on many an occasion to explain why the British ‘redcoat’ was so clad, especially in the US. A seamless seasonal link there, I think you’ll agree. The implication being that the British army that fought the American Revolution comprised thousands of scared impressed conscripts who would rout at the drop of a hat, were it not for the tyrannical discipline of their officers. Even the British have made this claim, probably because until relatively recently, soldiers were very much looked down upon in British society, such that a slight against their courage wouldn’t necessarily be a slight against the army or the Empire. Francis Grose, in his  ‘Military Antiquities’, states (though I can’t find the original source he cites online);

‘Julius Ferretus, a writer of the middle of the 16th century, in his Treatife on the Military Science, fays, that foldiers commonly wore a fhort red fagum, or frock, which colour was chofen that they might not be difcouraged by the fight of the blood from their wounds.’
-Grose, Military Antiquities, 1788 (p.6)

So this idea was a contemporary one. Nevertheless, it’s pretty dubious. Military uniforms were bold solid colours because for line infantry (riflemen and light infantry being a special case) there was no tactical need for anything that would blend in. It was also a bonus for officers and general staff to be able to see where their men were on the black powder-filled battlefield, and for the men themselves to be able to tell each other apart in close quarters. More significantly, in an age before chemical dyes, there was also quite a limited colour palette to choose from. Hiding your sucking chest wound had nothing to do with it. A fellow WordPress blogger has a good summary of why this claim is bogus. It points out that blood is in fact quite visible against red fabric, something I can vouch for having seen period uniform still bearing obvious blood stains. But I’m just as interested in where these things come from as debunking them. So where does this red herring originate? Well, it’s actually pretty ancient – 1st Century A.D. ancient, in fact:

‘They used to wear red tunics in battle to disguise and hide the blood from their wounds, not that the sight of the wounds would terrify them, but it might make the enemy a little more confident.’
-Valerius Maximus on the Spartans

Of course we have no way of knowing whether the Spartans really did this, but as another practical warfighting race, like the British later on, it seems pretty unlikely. The claim was recycled five hundred years later by an ecclesiastical scholar of the ancient world;

‘The reddened (russata) garment, which the Greeks call Phoenician and we call scarlet, was invented by the Lacedaemonians so as to conceal the blood with a similar color whenever someone was wounded in battle, lest their opponents’ spirits rise at the sight.’
-Isidore of Seville, Origines XIX, xxii, 10

Intriguingly, Isidore also says that Roman soldiers were known as russati because of the similarly red tunics that they wore; a direct foreshadowing of the British ‘redcoats’. I suspect our missing link here is a later writer, perhaps at the height of the British Empire in the Victorian period, deliberately drawing an analogy between the armies of the two empires, just as Valerius had by referencing the Spartans. The russati/redcoat connection would have reinforced this Britain=Rome meme, and might even have inspired the appropriation of the old Spartan/Roman myth. Now, this could be used by both proponents and enemies of a given country/empire, depending how it’s spun. Valerius and Isidore give a positive angle, but perhaps more logical is the negative version in currency by the 19th century, and presumably earlier:

‘English children are, perhaps, still taught that French soldiers wear red trousers in order that the sight of blood may not frighten them in war-time ; and doubtless French children imbibe a similar theory regarding the English red coats.’
-J.A. Farrer in ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’, 1885**

Farrer’s summary is actually very comprehensive, although I couldn’t find the original source for this claim of his; ‘Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver…chose it, according to Xenophon, because red is most easily taken by cloth and most lasting;’ Which is a shame, because it would predate even Valerius (Xenophon being active c300 BC) Nevertheless, it’s still far closer to the truth than the blood thing, for which there is no evidence and no plausibility. After all, I can’t see this chap being overly worried about a spot of blood on his cloak, can you?



Expanded references; *Wardle, D. Valerius Maximus’ Memorable Deeds and Sayings: Book 1. Oxford University Press (Clarendon Ancient History Series): Oxford and New York, 1998, p57, Ch.6 para.2. **Farrer, J.A. Curiosities of Military Discipline, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol.258-259,1885, p.133.


July 3, 2012

The extremely helpful Facey Romford has pointed out this classic example of the danger in favouring experience over evidence. There’s not much I can add to Britarch’s excellent summary, except to point out that the Margaret Murray that so loudly protested in favour of the imaginary chalk figures was the same Margaret Murray that popularised the bogus ‘witch cult’ theory that underpinned Gerald Gardner’s new religion – Wicca. Thankfully, many pagans today are rather more open-minded.

Turin Breaks

December 20, 2011

More Turin shroud nonsense, this time from some scientists. More detail in said scientists’ own words that you won’t find in the media here. Now, the ‘scientists say’ headline is always annoying, because like most people, individual scientists and even teams of scientists, get things wrong. Saying ‘scientists say’ makes it sound like Science itself has pronounced on the matter. In fact, it has – the scientific and historical consensus on the Turin shroud is pretty damn solid.

But if one scientific study contradicts this, it’s surely worth looking at. Unfortunately this seems to be another case of specialists in one area trying to apply their skills outside their area of expertise. Just because these guys have recreated the shroud using intense ultraviolet radiation, doesn’t mean that’s the only way of doing it. High-end replica medieval swords are CNC-machined – one would not suggest that medieval blacksmiths had access to the silicon chip. In fact, plenty of others have recreated the ‘shroud’ using other, medievally-appropriate means. Even if, as claimed in this report from the same institution, no-one has precisely managed it at a chemical level, just because this method works doesn’t mean it was supernatural levels of UV (i.e. God did it). At least the article contains a balancing quote from another Italian academic, but because he isn’t quoted giving his reasoning, he just comes across as a scoffer.

We might also wait for replication of the findings before even accepting that this method is a valid means of reconstruction, let alone the way the Almighty pulled it off.

That about sums it up. I will add that it’s extremely intellectually dishonest of this ENEA organisation to imply that they’ve proven the shroud genuine. It’s also confusing, because the lead scientist in question also contributed to this sensible piece on the dangers of pareidolia. Clearly the image on the shroud doesn’t fall into that category, but I’d expect someone who’s aware of that phenomenon to be a little more critically-minded.

Oh, and it’s not really news. This lot published their findings 18 months ago now (more from 2008 listed here). This more PR-friendly attention-grab may prove to be a risky strategy – going for short-term press attention over scientific credibility could backfire for them what with the deep cuts being made to government-funded institutions around Europe. Unless the alternative energy source that ENEA is hoping to harness is…no, it couldn’t be

For more, see Doubtful Newsblog, which links to a Telegraph blog post from Tom Chivers with a wonderfully Brian Coxesque title;

‘The Turin Shroud is Fake. Get Over It.’

Madness? This…is…

June 15, 2011

A nice concise debunking of the supposed practice of Spartan baby culling on the Fortean Times website;

It may be BS, but at least it’s contemporary BS!















Now you’re just making me Cross…

April 13, 2011
At least she was in Wayne’s World…

This piece about some berk who thinks he’s found nails from the true cross just beggars belief.  I’m sorely tempted to create a press release about evidence of an ancient zombie holocaust, just to see which news agencies will run it. Apparently there’s a “History” Channel “Documentary” (scare quotes intended) forthcoming about it. I will no doubt watch it and may yet tear it apart in a fuller post if I have time. Meantime, this and related articles are just so full of holes I barely know where to begin. So, I’ll just rant away.

It starts with the title – “Did Journalist Find ‘THE Nails’ Used to Crucify Jesus?”. Dear Journalists – if you have to phrase your article as a question, the answer is probably “no”. That being the case, perhaps you should see what Justin Bieber is up to rather than run the piece.

Then we have;

“Controversial journalist Simcha Jacobovici says he may have found the nails that were used to crucify Jesus more than 2,000 years ago.”

That should really be all that we read on this subject, because that doesn’t just summarise the “news” of the “find” (OK, I’ll stop with the quotes now) – it IS the “news” (sorry, I did try). A journalist, a “controversial” one no less, is not in ANY WAY qualified to announce ANY archaeological find, let alone one of this supposed magnitude. He should be dismissed out of hand, but he isn’t. Why IS that, mainstream media? Why must you provide a mouthpiece for this idiocy?

Anyway, with a heavy heart, let’s proceed. I can’t really sum the remaining evidence for this claim better than JREF poster pobblob14;

“This guy finds two nails at Tel Aviv University. Those nails showed up there, apparently without labeling or other attribution, at about the same time as two nails from a tomb got lost.

The tomb where two nails (that might or might not be these nails) were found is the one with an ossuary marked Caiaphas, who might or might not have been that Caiaphas.

Therefore . . . Jesus? Did I miss a step in there someplace? Is he suggesting that Caiaphas kept the nails as a souvenir or something, and that when he died, somebody tossed the nails into the tomb (one in the ossuary, one on the ground), because . . . .

Was this argument constructed by the Underpants Gnomes?”

Perhaps; I imagine this chap is certainly banking on the missing Profit?! step working out for him. I’m guessing the James Ossuary debacle (here’s a hint – it turned out to be BULLSHIT) wasn’t without its benefits. And not being an academic, he has no reputation at stake. Win-win!

Anyway, if it isn’t already obvious, the above aren’t so much reaches as rocket-assisted takeoffs. There’s no provenance for the nails, let alone sound provable links between the rest of it. but wait – we’re told that the nails are bent…

“…in a way that is consistent with crucifixion.”

What, in the name of Sweet Zombie Jesus, is the difference between a nail used to, I don’t know, stick an ikon over a fireplace (say) and one used to nail someone to a bleedin’ tree? What is this claim based on? The nail in the picture doesn’t look long or substantial enough to successfully crucify Jesus’ pet CAT, let alone the big man himself. It could be ANYTHING. The one in the picture doesn’t even match the vague description of the missing nails – it’s sure as hell not “8cm” long.

Sorry, this one’s making me all shouty. I’ll leave it there and post this highly relevant Black Adder clip. This is an old, old well of snake oil that this guy is dredging. Bring on the documentary. It should make Deadliest Warrior look like The World at War…