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Erich von Däniken photographed on 19 October 2006. © Michal Manaš

No Sweeping Claims, Please - Part One
Jun 21, 2010

Despite a knack for science-fiction writing, the Swiss Erich von Däniken (1935- ) has become the face of twentieth century pseudo-science.

Many scholars share a profound distaste for cross-cultural comparison of aspects of human culture, such as architecture, ritual practices, rock art, pottery designs, mythology and religion. Displeasure is especially incurred when such analysis highlights universal similarities in these areas and inspires explanations other than the anodyne ‘cultural archetypes’.

While specialist journals dedicated to specific cultures or specific eras abound, publications in comparative fields are few and far between; the ones that do see the light of day generally content themselves with a presentation of materials, shying away from raising questions, let alone offering answers. The signature of admirable scholarship is an in-depth study of a highly specialised subdiscipline.

Archaeologists and art historians alike take pride in the search for features that make their pet cultures unique, with marked disregard for arguments focussing on shared beliefs and practices. Among the most lamentable casualties of this biased attitude is a theory of mythology.

Mythology par excellence is a global form of cultural expression that is rich in striking patterns of agreement between far-flung regions, but lacks a consensus paradigm within such parallels can be categorised and understood. Specialised studies of cultural mythologies are invaluable contributions to scholarship, but the doyens of fields such as Egyptology, Assyriology, classical studies, Sinology, Maya studies and so on will need to grow more tolerant towards intercultural comparison if any broader theory of mythology is allowed to supplant the unsuccessful thought experiments of earlier savants.

The question why eminent scholars, who supervise doctoral dissertations, chair conferences and referee papers, have developed such a visceral aversion to interdisciplinary parallels surely warrants a lifetime’s study and a PhD thesis in itself. Nevertheless, a brief psychoanalysis suggests that hidebound experts perpetuate an intellectual climate suffused with trauma.

The trauma is the cumulative exposure to no less than six embarrassing types of source abuse and uncritical speculation, all in one century, perpetrated by scholars and laymen alike, and all drawing on bountiful repositories of cross-cultural data. A quick run-down yields the following fiascos in the field of comparative studies.

One way to explain common themes and patterns in contiguous cultures is through borrowing, missionary activity and other types of diffusion. There is no doubt that interacting cultures have exchanged objects and ideas – and in many cases the expert can recognise the fruits of such exchanges with confidence. Hyperdiffusionists are people who dispense with the need to identify ‘forensic evidence’ of such borrowing and claim widespread diffusion of ideas for which little evidence exists other than the parallels themselves.

Perhaps the worst excess of this approach was the ‘Pan-Babylonianist’ school of the early twentieth century, which attributed highly advanced astronomical knowledge to cultures worldwide, all of which was traced back to Mesopotamia using dubious methods of reasoning and with very little in the way of proof. A late champion of this theory was the celebrated American comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell (1908-1987).

As the short-lived academic love-affair with Pan-Babylonianism wore off, it left in its wake a deep-seated disinclination for any theories suggesting accomplished astronomical skill or historically related parallels between cultures that are far removed from each other in time and space. In this climate, any discussion of astral materials in the traditions of illiterate societies is just about tolerable, as long as not too much sophistication is argued for. For classicists or professionals in the field of ancient Near Eastern culture, astronomical interpretations as well as comparative discussions are barely palatable.

Further discouragement from comparative studies must have come from the repeated failure of psychosocial theories designed to account for global parallels. Sir James Frazer’s argument that mankind’s evolution of mental progress independently proceeds along exactly the same lines in all areas was doomed to failure at the outset.

Contributed by Rens Van Der Sluijs

Books by Rens Van Der Sluijs:

The Mythology of the World Axis

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon



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EXECUTIVE EDITORS: David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
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