Who really discovered America, Columbus or King Solomon?
To hear Robert F. Marx tell it, Columbus may have been beaten to the New World by the sailing ships of Solomon or Alexander the Great or one of a dozen other ancient peoples for whom the same claim is made, ranging from Arabs, Basques and Carthaginians to Russians, Tibetans and Welshmen.
"Given the growing body of evidence," Marx insists in "Quest of Great White Gods," "there seems little doubt that long before Columbus, not only did 'bearded white gods' reach the New World, but black and yellow gods, too."
Marx, a self-described archeologist and historian, is a man in thrall to history--or at least some profoundly romantic and slightly weirded-out version of history. At the heart of Marx's book--and his life's work--is the notion that European voyagers reached the Americas in ancient or even prehistoric times and acted as godlike benefactors, leaving behind the culture, religion and technology of the high civilizations of the Mediterranean.
Thus, Marx argues, the Aztec god called Quetzalcoatl, the Mayan gods Votan and Kukulcan, and other figures of pre-Columbian civilization in the Americas were inspired by a "bearded great white god" that Marx identifies as some early (and possibly accidental) emissary from the Old World.
"White gods," Marx writes, "figure in almost every indigenous culture in the Americas."
As we learn in "In Quest of the Great White Gods"--a memoir masquerading as a historical manifesto--Marx has devoted his life to a restless search for the archeological leavings of the "white gods"--and he insists that there are plenty of little curiosities that prove his point.
Ancient Egyptian statuettes have been found "under 10 feet of sand on a beach . . . in El Salvador," or so Marx reports. On an island off the coast of Maine are Celtic inscriptions on stone: "Cargo platforms for ships from Phoenicia." "A hoard of Roman jewelry" was discovered in a grave site near Mexico City, and the stonework of a ruin in Peru is thought to resemble "Etruscan polygonal walls."
Marx claims to be a scholar, but he comes across as a real-life Indiana Jones in his memoirs, which are embellished and enlivened with sunken treasure and ruined jungle temples, life-or-death encounters with jaguars and sharks, shootouts and hair-breadth escapes, shipwrecks and rescues at sea, and even a ill-starred encounter with the PLO and Israeli commandos.
"For me," Marx writes, "adventure is a way of life."
What Marx does best is tell a tale, especially a tall one, and "Quest" is good entertainment even when it verges on the preposterous. Marx first caught "treasure fever" as an amateur skin diver in Southern California in the late 1940s, where he first brought up golden coins from a shipwreck near Anacapa Island, and his gold lust has driven him to ever more exotic and mysterious exploits, many of which are described here.
Marx is also a charming self-promoter with a sense of humor and a flair for showmanship, and some of his adventures--like an ocean crossing aboard a replica of the Nina--were essentially publicity stunts and media events dressed up as historical experiments.
"If nine non-seamen could make it across the Atlantic in a half-sized caravel with only minimal knowledge of seamanship," he writes, "I think the ancient would certainly have been able to make the same voyages."
And Marx is almost too quick to concede that his theories are controversial: He seems to thrive on sensation. Indeed, controversy is Marx's real stock in trade, and he cheerfully reveals that he has been variously condemned as "El gringo loco," "Pirate Marx," "the great thief of Mexican antiquities" and "a disgrace to history."
"Today, the theory that the South American Indians relied on outsiders to achieve an advanced civilization infuriates many people," he concedes, almost gleefully. "It seems politically incorrect."
"Quest" is a good yarn, but Marx tries hard to dress it up as something slightly scandalous. In that sense, "Quest" is the archeological equivalent of Oliver Stone's "JFK"--Marx seeks to prove the existence of "great white gods" by offering us a haphazard collection of oddities, rumors and coincidences, but what's on display here is really nothing more than the passions and obsessions of a born showman.
Next: Richard Eder reviews "A Handbook for Drowning: Stories" by David Shields (Knopf) .