Velikovsky and Ancient Civilizations: What Can We Really Know?

When reading the introduction to Apocalypse by Amos Nur, I came across the term “Veliskovskyian” for the first time. The quote in whole reads “Rose [an archaeologist] demanded that, before one can hypothesize that an earthquake destroyed a society, one must prove not only that it happened, but exactly how it happened. Without proof, he claims, such a hypothesis is no more than a Veliskovskyian-style science fiction presented in the guise of science” (Nur, 3). Essentially, Nur is paraphrasing the view of opponents to his theory that civilizations were more frequently destroyed by earthquakes and other geological events than previously thought. From context, we can extrapolate that Veliskovskyian means outlandish, but where does this term come from?

Immanuel Velikovsky (also stylized as Veliskovsky because the conventions of the Cyrillic alphabet do not always translate well into the English one)  was a Russian author who was active during the mid to late 20th century with his most famous work, Worlds in Collision, coming out in 1950. Velikovsky’s specialty was analyzing ancient texts. Eventually, using comparisons of various ancient texts such as the Bible, he came up with a theory about our solar system and the effects of astrological events on human civilization that remains controversial to this day. 

In Velikovsky’s own words, “Worlds in Collision is a book of wars in the celestial sphere that took place in historical times. In these wars, the planet earth participated too. […] The historical-cosmological story of this book is based in the evidence of historical texts of many people around the globe, on classical literature, on epics of the northern races, on sacred books of the peoples of the Orient and Occident, on traditions and folklore of primitive peoples, on old astronomical inscriptions and charts, on archaeological finds, and also on geological and paleontological material.”

Basically, Velikovsky believed that our solar system used to be very different and in constant irregular motion, the results of which were the occasional collisions or near misses of planets, resulting in dramatic events on Earth. Specifically, Venus used to be a comet that came very close to Earth twice in the 15th century BCE and at one point, Mars also passed close in proximity to Earth. Most dramatic events in ancient times were attributed to these astrological events. For example, the plagues that rained down on the people of Egypt as described in the Old Testament were hypothesized to be direct results of the dust falling off of Venus as it passed by Earth. The “rain of blood” from this event was, according to Velikovsky, the result of red dust coming off of Venus’s comet trail.

While these theories are evidently ludicrous and go against everything astrophysicists had discovered before Velikovksy wrote his book and since (the main complaint being that the actions of Venus and Mars would go against every Newtonian law of physics), it is important to evaluate their believability, especially to people who are not familiar with the laws of physics. Velikovsky did not come up with these theories on a whim; he used what he knew about physics, psychology, geology, and of course comparative methodology to come up with these theories. A review of Worlds in Collision by Robert H. Pfeiffer, former Chairman of the Department of Semitic Language and History at Harvard University reads “Dr. Velikovsky discloses immense erudition and extraordinary ingenuity. He writes well and documents all his statements with original sources . . . His conclusions are amazing, unheard of, revolutionary, sensational . . . If Dr. Velikovsky is right, this volume is the greatest contribution to the investigation of ancient times ever written.”

If a Harvard scholar can read this book and conclude that maybe Velikovsky was right, it is not surprising that others less versed in academics might believe it too (here it is worth noting that Worlds in Collision topped the New York Times bestseller list for eleven weeks straight). Indeed, according to the New York Times, there was an annotated copy of Worlds in Collision on Albert Einstein’s bedside table when he died. One of the related searches that Google offers when searching Velikovsky’s name is “Velikovsky was right.” Most of the results that appear from clicking on it are questions on Quora and Yahoo!Answers. However, another article pops up that claims that Velikovsky was right and cites an MIT study that suggests that the solar system formed in a much more erratic way than previously thought.

The science part of the article is right: there was much more chaos theory (colloquially known as the butterfly effect) involving asteroids that helped form our solar system than scientists previously thought. This publication, originally published by the National Academy of Sciences, confirms this, but the part about Velikovsky being right about its effect on human life is way off. The astrological events the study speaks of happened millennia before humans began to exist on Earth.

At this point, you may be asking yourself how this relates to our course other than the brief mention in the Nur article. I think that it links well to what we have read in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season so far, especially in the characters’ relation to past civilizations.

Writes Jemisin, “While we’re doing things continentally, planetarily, we should consider the obelisks, which float above all this. The obelisks had other names once, back when they were first built and deployed and used, but no one remembers those names or the great devices’ purpose. Memories are fragile as slate in the Stillness … [the obelisks are] just another grave-marker of just another civilization successfully destroyed by Father Earth’s tireless efforts” (8).

One of Velikovsky’s claims was that people suppressed memories of these disastrous, astrologically driven events  (Velikovsky was close with Freud) which is why the records we have are only religious in nature. In a world where the only religion seems to be apocryphal predictions (though we have not yet encountered much information about the texts quoted at the end of each chapter), there is no record whatsoever of ancient civilizations or the events that killed them. Thus, in the world Jemisin has created, any person’s speculation is as good as anyone else’s. In this manner, we can come to understand why Velikovsky’s theories took hold: in a world where we have little information about the past, it is easy to accept anything presented as science.

This, of course, is also true for the lore about orogenes: because they are not understood, any rumor about them, such as their lack of ability to feel cold, is easily believed (Jemisin, 31). Though I have not yet finished reading The Fifth Season, it will be interesting to see how the misinformation and mistrust surrounding orogenes will unroll.  

Thus, the works and life of Velikovsky have something to teach us about the misinterpretation of knowledge. I plan to expand on this on a later blog post (once we have gotten further into The Broken Earth trilogy), but for now, I would like to hear what others think of the reference to Velikovsky in Nur’s work and the link to The Fifth Season.

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