Fictional Facts

“If you want truth,” Indiana Jones famously said, you need to go to philosophy class. The sad fact is most people have little practical training when it comes to such issues as discerning truth. Some time ago I read an article about how fake news travels faster and is more deeply believed than actual truth. I suspect that’s because the truth is hard. The age-old trope used to be a wizened elder sitting atop a mountain in the lotus position. A lifetime of thinking through the labyrinthian corridors of wishful belief to get to what is finally and unassailably true. Our president, with the full complicity of the Republican Party, is out to dismantle the concept of truth once and for all.

Indiana Jones was contrasting facts to truth in this scene from The Final Crusade. The idea was that facts sometimes make you question truth. In GOP University, however, facts have alternatives. He who bellows the loudest is the harbinger of truth. Never mind that still small voice that comes after the raging wind. The voice that can stop a fiery prophet in his tracks—a man who could raise the dead, for crying out loud—but even his successor called Herod a FOX. In the culture of the shrug, who really cares? Finding the truth is so much navel-gazing. There are real enemies to bomb and somebody has some money that I can take away and claim as my own. To do so we can make up facts as we go along and lies will see us through. With the Evangelical seal of approval.

Even with rumors of a fifth film swirling, I miss Indiana Jones. In his formative days fascists were the enemies, even of the Republicans. Although he was showing his age in Crystal Skull, Jones still couldn’t countenance oppressive regimes. Scientific studies show people would rather believe fake news. We’re hopelessly prone to fantasy, I guess. Even as I volunteered on the archaeological dig at Tel Dor, although I had little money a fedora was required. There was a difference, however. I knew I really wasn’t Indiana Jones. I was digging for facts so solid that they could be held in my hand. Unlike Dr. Jones’ students, I did go down the hall to Dr. Trammel’s philosophy class. Surrounded by the young Republicans of Grove City College, none of us doubted that truth was spelled with a capital T. Now Truth is apparently an artifact buried in the sand, awaiting a hapless archaeologist to bring it to light. Amid all the forgeries that non-specialists can’t tell apart.

Egyptian Afterlife

The day after Maurice Sendak died, Google’s doodle celebrated Howard Carter’s 138th birthday. Although Howard Carter’s name may not immediately ring a bell, his work still affects all of us in the western world in profound ways. An inspiration for both Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, Carter is best remembering for discovering the intact tomb of King Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings. This discovery generated a neo-Egyptian revival in western culture, notable in the Art Deco movement and the Egyptianizing architecture it inspired. As Google’s doodle shows, we are still reaching back to ancient Egypt to find some kind of meaning for ourselves today. In a world of gadgets and hi-tech baubles, we still cast an envious eye towards the dwellers along the Nile.

It is difficult to assess why the Egyptians are so enduring. They were, after all, polytheists and occupied a country that is now part of the “Middle East.” It is, however, a mystique that they held even in antiquity. Raiders and invaders who came to Egypt ended up trying to walk like the Egyptians rather than attempting to force them to follow foreign ways. The ideal in ancient Egypt was a stable cosmos. In a perfect world Egypt would be an island of calm and tranquility. For this they had their strong kings to thank, and they spared little expense to build him tombs that would remain the largest buildings on earth until Eiffel began to tinker with steel.

Perhaps the characteristic we most admire about the Egyptians is their unshaken confidence. Assured that they were in the favor of the gods, they took that assurance to the grave. Even as the neighboring Israelites still confined the dead to a gloomy underworld, the Egyptians were constructing an afterlife that would keep the good times rolling as long as time itself survived. A great deal of effort was expended on the pampering of the dead. Funnily enough, in our Christianized nation the confidence of divine pleasure only seems to be enacted in the limiting of the rights of others. And when it is all over, the righteous still fear death. Google has an almost unlimited choice of inspirations for its doodles, but Howard Carter seems especially appropriate on a day when we remember those who are willing to go to dangerous places where the wild things might lurk yet.

Rosslyn, New Texaco

Back before Dan Brown had becoming the Most Important Human Ever, even before he published Angels and Demons, my wife and I visited Rosslyn Chapel in Roslin Glen, Scotland. While not actually seeking the Holy Grail, I had been doing some research on Celtic lore, ostensibly where the Grail legend originates, and so we made our way to the remote and (then) desolate site of this unusual church. Officially the Collegiate Chapel of St. Matthew, it is, without doubt, the busiest piece of architectural stonework I have ever witnessed. We went for the grail. We stayed for the art.

WikiCommons image, ours isn't this good

WikiCommons image, ours isn't this good

The research I had been conducting (finally published just last year as a contribution to a Festschrift for Nicolas Wyatt) involved the Mabinogian, a repository of Celtic mythology, and the legend of Bran. For sharing the name of a healthful breakfast cereal, Bran is renowned for also having had a life-restoring cauldron. He even made a journey to the netherworld and his head kept singing even after having been dissociated from his body. An uncommon hero indeed. All historical indicators, however, point to the cauldron as the original of the Holy Grail. Certainly the Bible does not mention it, nor does it appear very early in Christian mythology.

People, as Dan Brown’s financial independence loudly indicates, like a good conspiracy theory. There is a comfort in believing that a magical object of great power is out there somewhere and that a rather ordinary Harvard professor (!) might be able to find it, yet resist taking it. Far truer to life is Indiana Jones and the Final Crusade; people feel the need to touch, to control the power beyond themselves. Even at the cost of their lives. Despite the fact that the Grail is a fiction, it simply will not disappear — although no one can find it and it has never been seen. Faith tends not to be based on tangibles. This is attested every time Dan Brown makes his way to the bank and the population reads with wonder about meanings that simply don’t exist.

Bosnia Jones meets Egypt Jones

Scholarship is a remarkable human achievement; so many people from countless backgrounds sparring over ideas with comparatively little bloodshed should be applauded. In the political and religious worlds where armaments are often thrown into the mix, well, the results are colorful but often less kind. I was reminded of this when one of my students recently showed me a copy of a letter regarding a somewhat outlandish claim by Sam Osmanagic (see Momma Maya: Is It the Apocalypse Already? for more on him). Osmanagic, who is studying for a doctorate, has recently added another hapless cause to his dossier of unlikely mysteries of the human past. Investigating Visocica, a hill in Bosnia, Osmanagic has concluded that it is really a pyramid.

The letter to which I referred, written by the irrepressible head of the Antiquities Council of Egypt, Dr. Zahi Hawass, is very gentle. Hawass, a kind of self-styled Egyptian Indiana Jones, notes in a letter to Archaeology magazine, “What was found there is really just a mass of huge stones, evidently a natural geologic formation.” He does, however, also note “His [Osmanagic’s] previous claim that the Maya are from the Pleiades and Atlantis should be enough for any educated reader.” Interestingly enough, Osmanagic is a self-styled Bosnian Indiana Jones, and he has written a book arguing for the pyramid option. Meanwhile, most serious scholars are more circumspect about the claims of any Indiana Joneses. After all, to quote Raiders of the Lost Ark, “archaeology is not an exact science.”

I am sometimes challenged by those who discover that I read such things as Drosnin (see Edoc Elbib Eht) or Osmanagic, but despite my objections to their conclusions that I inevitably reach, I want to hear them. Scholarship suffers from silencing the maverick voices. I have never ascribed to the principle that a person has to have a Ph.D. to be credible; often the reverse is true. I have met many Ph.D.s barely worth listening to while some of the most profound thoughts I’ve encountered came while I was working as a janitor’s assistant, listening to my boss. He was a man who engaged in physical labor that afforded him time to think. No, I do not buy Drosnin or Osmanagic’s conclusions, but I applaud them. Scholarship would be dull if not for those willing to take chances out there on the edge of credibility. (And wearing cool hats while doing it.)