Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Real Feelings About Ersatz History

Sometimes I like to get lost on Wikipedia. I got lost the other day in the "pseudohistory" category, and it was fascinating.

It started with the Ourang Medan. Well, it started on YouTube. I wasn't signed into my Google Account, so I was browsing the home page. A channel with a series of "top 5" lists came up - in fact, the channel is called Top5s.

This is the video I saw.

[If you want to read more about the strange death of Canadian student Elisa Lam in Los Angeles, you may do so at The Vigilant Citizen.]

The evening after I watched the video, I went to bed thinking about the Ourang Medan, the "ghost ship" whose crew was supposedly found dead, with expressions of abject terror on their faces, shortly before the ship exploded and sank. I wondered if the story was true.

I looked it up the next day. According to Wikipedia, there's no evidence that a ship called the Ourang Medan even existed. If it did, it should be listed in Lloyd's Shipping Register, but it isn't.

The categories at the bottom of the entry caught my eye; this is where I noticed the word "pseudohistory." What a fascinating word, I thought: not history that actually happened, but "history" that circulates in human consciousness without apparent basis in fact. I had to know what else belonged to this category.

For the record, I should mention that Wikipedia, as a peer-edited source, doesn't have the same standards for reliability and accuracy that a source with a "gatekeeper"/editor has. Although it has guidelines, it has so many users that it would be virtually impossible to ensure that all the articles adhere to its guidelines at all times. We have to take Wikipedia entries with a grain of salt, but that doesn't mean the categorization itself isn't of interest.

Pseudohistory, it turns out, contains a great many fascinating topics. Some of it has to do with "ancient astronaut theory," as exemplified by Erich von Däniken's 1968 nonfiction book Chariots of the Gods?. (The question mark is part of the title.)

Another large subcategory of pseudohistory is labelled as Priory of Sion Hoax. This has to do with much of the background story that went into Dan Brown's writing of The Da Vinci Code. Another subcategory is the "Shakespeare authorship question." (There's also a Molière authorship question, but hey, I care much less about French literature than English. Cultural bias - sorry.)

Much of the pseudohistory category has to do with religion, much of it to do specifically with Christianity. Take, for example, the brief Babylon Mystery Religion article. Babylon Mystery Religion is a book, now out of print, by Ralph Woodrow published in 1966. Referring to an earlier (1853) book called The Two Babylons by Alexander Hislop, Woodrow's book linked the Roman Catholic Church to ancient Babylonian rituals. Woodrow later recanted his anti-Catholic views in a second book.

Apparently there are quite a few factual errors in Hislop's book, stemming from misunderstandings about the historical Babylonian culture. Although scholars have subsequently pointed out these errors, the Catholicism=Whore of Babylon theme is still alive and well among some Evangelical Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses.

One of the modern-day adherents to some version of Hislop's ideas is Michael Hoggard, an American (Missouri) pastor with a relatively large following for his radio/YouTube show. The show has more than 20,000 fans on Facebook. He also curates the website, which collects uses of images linked to the number 666 as they appear in popular culture.

Hoggard is a Southern Baptist. A related pseudohistorical concept is Baptist successionism, which argues that the Baptist denomination is most direct line between the Christianity of Jesus and the Apostles and modern churches. The work most often associated with this view is The Trail of Blood (1931) by J.M. Carroll. It is not historically accurate, but it remained influential among Southern Baptists well into the late 20th century.

But for me, maybe the most interesting article in all of pseudohistory is the Witch-Cult Hypothesis. Remember when I got my ass handed to me for over-relying on Barbara J. Walker as a source? (If not, you can always read about it here.) Well, Walker is probably an adherent of this theory. It states, essentially, that through the Middle Ages and into the Modern Era, ancient Pagan religions survived in such a way that worshipers of The Horned God of Paganism were mistaken by Christians for worshipers of the Christian devil and subsequently persecuted as witches. This theory came about in the 19th century and was perpetuated into the 20th century, even including the entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica for many years.

(Encyclopedias are them things we used to read before we had Google.)

According to the Wikipedia entry, the Witch-Cult Hypothesis found a champion in British historian/Egyptologist Margaret Murray*, who wrote The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. It is not historically accurate.

Despite its unreliability as history, Murray's book is said, in the Wikipedia entry, to have been influential in the development of the Wiccan religion. Murray's subsequent book, The God of the Witches, introduced the term The Horned God for the male deity worshiped by the alleged witch cult on Western Europe. (She acknowledged that the witch cult also worshiped a goddess, but in her opinion the witches regarded their male deity as the more important of the two.) Gerald Gardner, who was also English and is now considered the founder of modern Wicca (referred to as Gardnerian Wicca), claimed to have found a surviving coven of the kind of witches Murray described, and he started his own coven based on them, in the interest of keeping the religion alive.

But mind you, Wicca, modern witchcraft, and NeoPaganism are 20th century religions. While they revive certain aspects of ancient belief and worship, the rituals and beliefs of modern witches were created in the 20th century. And there's nothing wrong with that. People take what they need from their religions, and a religion doesn't have to be old to meet the needs of its practitioners.

The Wikipedia article on The Horned God states that Gardner, consciously influenced by Murray, borrowed his conception of Wiccan practice from Freemasonry, from the Theosophy movement, from other unnamed occult sources, and from Aleister Crowley's Gnostic Mass. (In 1913, Crowley wrote a mass for the Gnostic church, borrowing from the rituals of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian churches, but replacing Christian concepts with his own Thelema, his "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.")

By the way, Margaret Murray is also in part responsible for the association of Glastonbury, England, with King Arthur and the Holy Grail. I used this legend in Midsummer Night.
So dig in to pseudohistory if you like. If you're interested in history - and in the history of ideas - you may find it as fascinating as I did.

*That Madeleine L'Engle's fictional protagonist in The Time Quintet is named Margaret "Meg" Murry is coincidence, I think.

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