The Pyramidologists

We are the pattern-seers, the dream-chasers. We see castles in clouds and omens in our tea. Why not? Imagine a primitive human, mistaking a shrub for a leopard—he might detour to avoid it, be inconvenienced, and live to have children. But what of one mistaking a leopard for a shrub? He is food. So it was the pattern-seers who made the next generation and the next. The need for patterns and meaning sank into our bones, became a hunger, deep as sex, dark as sleep.

Today we have learned to spin meaning from dreams and cobwebs. And when others fail to see it, how we weep, how we rage!

Scottish astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) was a pattern-seer. When archeologists dug up a casing-stone of the Great Pyramid, Smyth realized that 1/25 of its length was also one ten-millionth of the Earth’s polar radius, as then estimated. Clearly this suggested a special unit, a “pyramid inch,” for measuring all aspects of the pyramid. Applying it, Smyth found other numeric coincidences—in fact, found it was a calendar of the past and future, tallying events from the world’s beginning (4004 BC) until its end (soon!). All in all, it was a splendid discovery—until we uncovered more casing-stones, and each was a different size.

Smyth’s several proposed dates for Armageddon, from 1882 to 1911, all failed. This did not deter others, who still saw secrets within Giza’s Pyramid. As the world’s tallest building before the Eiffel Tower, surely it was more than a mere outlandish coffin. Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Watchtower Society (the Jehovah’s Witnesses), absorbed Smyth’s pyramidal theories, as well as his obsession with end-times prophecy. And they both had a respected predecessor: John Taylor, a London publisher (1781-1864), who never visited the Pyramid, but studied it most of his life, to conclude it was built under divine instruction by Noah himself.

In the smoky halls of pseudoarcheology, the pyramids nearly rival Atlantis. A common idea is that pyramidal dimensions are occultly significant, or hide an encoded message. Dividing them, John Taylor found that the numbers pi and phi (the Golden Ratio,  1.61803) turned up far too often for coincidence (he didn’t think how centuries of erosion had altered those dimensions). Not to be outdone, Charles Smyth teased complex meaning from the number of stones lining the Great Pyramid’s inner chambers, the shape and volume of the stone coffer in the King’s Chamber, the weight and density of the coffer, the courses of masonry between chambers, the pyramid’s faces and angles, its location, its orientation—and much, much else.

They held dim candles to other pyramid-cranks. Since the mid-19th century, gurus and cult leaders have clouded the Great Pyramid like midges around a street lamp. Theosophist Helena Blavatsky floridly called it “the everlasting record and indestructible symbol of the Mysteries and Initiations on Earth.” In 1927, structural engineer David Davidson studied the Pyramid, declaring “the whole empirical basis of civilisation is a makeshift collection of hypotheses compared with the Natural Law basis of that civilisation of the past.” Aleister Crowley, the infamous Black Magician, claimed to spend his honeymoon within Giza’s Pyramid, in the King’s chamber, bathed in a supernatural light. (He also complained that the stone floor made it hard to sleep.)

Isaac Newton studied it too—not as an occult key, but a yardstick to measure the size of the earth. “Pyramidologists” (Smyth invented the word) will remind us of this, as it lends a certain cachet and respectability.

Of all the lot, the most well-known, the most notorious, is Eric von Däniken, a former Swiss hotel manager, and author of Chariots of the Gods and about two dozen follow-ups. Däniken milks the pyramids and other artifacts for proof of “ancient astronauts,” alien visitors meddling in our history. He has a knack for it: a glib, cheerful style, a viral enthusiasm that rubs off on readers like powder from a moth’s wings, and a conspiratorial wink. We know better than those university pundits, don’t we? In 1974, when he admitted in a Playboy interview that he fudged or distorted at least some of his evidence, his popularity barely flagged. After all, he was having fun—isn’t that what matters? In answer to that, critics stand speechless.

No doubt of it, pyramidologists will continue to find meaning in Giza’s structure: foreshadows of America, the First World War, Hitler’s rise, Armegeddon and more—not to mention those ancient astronauts. Never mind that only after-the-fact predictions seem to work out. We can laugh at, but admire too, the simple, contagious joy of a child seeing castles in the clouds. It is the pollen of imagination. And it is a tribute to that first primitive human, who saw something in the road, and decided to take another way home.

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