Around 1960, I read Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision”, republished by a book club which my dad subscribed to. The message had a great appeal to a rebellious geekish adolescent: the Bible was wrong, the history books were wrong, the scientists were wrong. What was not to like?
Unfortunately, an awful lot of what Velikovsky wrote was wrong too – but not all.
Velikovsky was a polymath chased out of Europe in the thirties by Hitler, a psychoanalyst excluded from the world of orthodox psychoanalysis for having dared to criticise Freud, who found himself in the forties in the US, correspondent for the New York Times on Palestine affairs, and joint editor with Albert Einstein of the Studia Hebraica.
One of his points of disagreement with Freud was over his last book “Moses and Monotheism” which attributed the invention of monotheism to the heretic Pharaoh Akhnaton. While researching Egyptian history looking for evidence of the Exodus, he came upon the Ipuwer papyrus, a fragmentary text which can be read as describing something like the plagues of Egypt, as described in the Old Testament. The problem was that, according to the accepted chronology, it was several centuries out.
Velikovsky devoted himself to an intense study of comparative mythology, and, like many before him, was astounded by the similarities in myths of people that can have had no physical contact before modern times. His conclusion was that they must have witnessed the same events, and that these events must have been celestial, with a catastrophic world-wide impact.
Specifically, he posited that the planets Mars and Venus were newcomers to the planetary system, and that their arrival and interactions circa 1300 B.C. and 800 B.C. are recorded in numerous myths and legends, including the Exodus and the Iliad.
This theory has been roundly disproved on grounds of planetary physics, and Velikovsky has been largely consigned to the junk heap of weirdo crackpot theorists alongside Eric von Daniken with his pyramid building extraterrestrials – which is a pity, because there is much more to Velikovsky than a false theory of planetary formation. (You can judge for yourself by visiting the site
or browsing through the “esoterica” shelves of any secondhand bookshop.)
He followed up with “Earth in Upheaval” a book criticising the geological dogma of slow non-catastrophic change to the earth’s surface. Following the acceptance of tectonic plates and the Great Extinctions, there is nothing absurd about Velikovsky’s critique, but at the time he was just another screwball sceptic with no peer-reviewed articles to his name – you get the idea.
Then came the two volumes of “Ages in Chaos”, an attempt to sort out the chronology of Egyptian history. The second volume, entitled “Peoples of the Sea”, contains an appendix entitled “Astronomy and Chronology”, the first chapter of which: “The foundations of Egyptian Chronology” explains with great precision why we should never ever trust the opinions of experts. The chronology of Egyptian civilisation hasn’t advanced since the time of Abraham (whenever that was). The pseudo-scientific speculations of nineteenth century egyptologists, supposedly based on the astronomical calculations of third century AD Greek commenters on ancient Egyptian methods of calculating adjustments to a 360 day year, miraculously resulted in Abraham landing in the right century, according to biblical tradition. The official chronology of Egypt has no scientific basis.
Many researchers followed Velikovsky’s example and tried to reconcile the official version of an Egyptian civilisation which remained petrified for three thousand years with the evidence from all other ancient cultures of a clear development over time, so that – say – Greek pottery of the sixth century can be clearly distinguished from that of the fifth, whereas Egyptian art is considered to be “timeless” – which is usually meant as a compliment – but means no more than that we haven’t the foggiest idea of the chronology of Egyptian civilisation.
[The boldest neo-Velikovskian revision of Egyptian chronology is probably that of Professor Gunnar Heinsohn in “Wann Lebten die Pharaonen?” in which he suggests that the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms were not separated by three millennia but were contemporary. The iron tools found in the pyramids were not dropped by some burglar two thousand years after their construction, but were used in their construction. If Homer doesn’t mention the pyramids in his account of Menelaus’s visit to Egypt, it’s because they hadn’t been built yet. If early Greek statues resemble strikingly Egyptian models, it’s because they were nearly contemporary, and not separated by thousands of years, and so on…]
Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision” received huge publicity on its publication in 1950, including a whole issue of the New Yorker devoted to it. Then two funny things happened:
1)The editors Macmillan were threatened by the scientific establishment with a boycott of their scientific textbooks if they continued to publish it. Macmillan caved in, and an editor left and formed Doubleday in order to escape this official censorship and publish the offending text.
2) Three new discoveries about the solar system: the existence of a magnetosphere around the planet Jupiter, and the retrograde spin and the high temperature of the planet Venus, were proposed as confirmations of Velikovsky’s theories. [This was in the epoch, dear readers, when empirical evidence was considered to trump the opinions of scientists…]
Here, one Carl Sagan came to the rescue, invoking the little known greenhouse effect, re-baptised the “runaway greenhouse effect”, in order to explain the anomalous 600°C surface temperature of Venus, and the honour of orthodox science was saved.
But once you’ve evoked a new scientific principle, the genie is out of the bottle, as it were. Something as potentially powerful as the runaway greenhouse effect can hardly be allowed to go to waste. If it can be used to silence the supporters of a marginal amateur cosmologist, surely it can be used for the greater benefit of mankind?
Which is where we find ourselves today.
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I’ll be coming back to Velikovsky, and particularly to his most interesting acolytes at
together with some research I did on weather in the Iliad (It was rotten – you could believe yourself at Wimbledon fortnight, except that the Iliad doesn’t last as long…)