Ben Carson

Ben Carson Isn't the First Politician to Have Odd Ideas About Pyramids

Compared to these concepts, Carson's theory is downright banal.

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The new frontrunner in the Republican presidential primaries has a theory about the pyramids:

Books like this were ubiquitous in the supermarkets of the '70s.
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Ben Carson stood by his long-held belief about ancient pyramids in Egypt, that they were used to store grain, rather than to inter pharaohs.

Asked about this Wednesday, Carson told CBS News, "It's still my belief, yes."

The subject came up when Buzzfeed published a 1998 commencement speech delivered by Carson at Andrews University, a college founded by Seventh-day Adventists.

"My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain," Carson said. "Now all the archeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs' graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it. And I don't think it'd just disappear over the course of time to store that much grain."

In the same speech, he went on to say, "[W]hen you look at the way that the pyramids are made, with many chambers that are hermetically sealed, they'd have to be that way for various reasons. And various of scientists have said, 'Well, you know there were alien beings that came down and they have special knowledge and that's how—' you know, it doesn't require an alien being when God is with you."

CBS does not appear to have asked the candidate precisely which scientists support the alien theory.

It would be easy to go into a tizzy about this, but really, Carson's comments are almost comforting, relatively speaking. After a season of hearing Trump talk about his worldview, a little kookiness about ancient Egypt is practically benign. At any rate, I don't think for a moment that Ben Carson will be elected president next year, so I'm not going to expend a lot of energy worrying about how such ideas might affect the ways he'd exercise power.

Instead let's ask a historical question: What other prominent politicians may have believed bizarre things about the pyramids? Two jump to mind.

Step 1: Enter their universe via my dupe, Henry Wallace. Step 2: Weirdmageddon!
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First there's Henry Wallace, one of FDR's vice presidents and a member of the Roosevelt and Truman cabinets. (Still later, he would edit The New Republic and run for president under the banner of the Progressive Party.) A devotee of Theosophy and other building blocks of New Age thought, Wallace was the man who persuaded the president to add the eye-in-the-pyramid symbol to the country's currency, thus giving ammo to everyone out there who thinks the Illuminati control the money supply.

During his presidential campaign in 1948, one of Wallace's most incisive critics was the left-libertarian writer Dwight Macdonald, who wrote a brief book about the candidate called Henry Wallace, the Man and the Myth. "Wallace dabbles in astrology and can draw a horoscope," Macdonald mentioned at one point. "He is quite familiar with the theory that the future can be predicted from certain markings on the Great Pyramid."

I realize, of course, that "quite familiar with" is not a synonym for "believes." There is room for a little interpretive ambiguity here, especially since the story is being filtered through the acid pen of one of Wallace's foes. We are on firmer footing when it comes to an earlier politician, Ignatius Donnelly, who served as Minnesota's lieutenant governor from 1860 to 1863, graduated from there to the U.S. Congress, and much later became active in the Populist Party, which nominated him for the vice presidency in 1900. Donnelly was also the author of several books of proto-New Age speculation, including 1882's Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, which includes this passage:

"…for soon the pyramids my people have planted across the globe will all EXPLODE!"
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Were not the pyramids of Egypt and America imitations of similar structures in Atlantis? Might not the building of such a gigantic edifice have given rise to the legends existing on both continents in regard to a Tower of Babel?

How did the human mind hit upon this singular edifice—the pyramid? By what process of development did it reach it? Why should these extraordinary structures crop out on the banks of the Nile, and amid the forests and plains of America? And why, in both countries, should they stand with their sides square to the four cardinal points of the compass? Are they in this, too, a reminiscence of the Cross, and of the four rivers of Atlantis that ran to the north, south, east, and west?

I have never found it puzzling that more than one culture would build structures that are smaller at the top than the bottom—surely the reverse would be more of a mystery—but many people think it's a conundrum, and Donnelly has been influential among them. Next to that, Ben Carson's grain theory is downright banal. I hate to ask this, but…do you think you could amp up the weirdness a bit, Dr. Carson? I know you've got it in you.