Immanuel Velikovsky (June 10, 1895 (NS) – November 17, 1979) is best known as the author of a number of controversial books on pre-history, particularly Worlds in Collision 1950), Ages in Chaos 1952, and Earth in Upheaval 1956. Earlier in his life, he played a role in the founding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and was a respected psychiatrist/psychoanalyst.
His books primarily used comparative mythology and ancient literary sources (not least the Bible) to propose that the Earth had suffered catastrophic close-contacts with other planets in the solar system (principally Venus and Mars), during and before recorded history. He argued that electromagnetic effects played an important role in celestial mechanics. He also proposed a revised chronology of Ancient Egypt, Greece, Palestine and the Near East, aiming to eliminate so-called Dark Ages and reconcile Biblical history with both archeology and Egyptian chronology.
Generally, Velikovsky's theories were vigorously rejected by the academic community, but despite, or perhaps because of this, Velikovsky's books sold well. (Indeed, the dubious conduct of many academics played into Velikovsky's hands, allowing him to use the 'suppressed genius' card to rally his laymen supporters, likening himself to martyred Renaissance scientist/heretic Giordano Bruno.) Controversy continues to this day, with refutation and counter-refutation, and ongoing claims of both rebuttal and substantiation.
Immanuel Velikovsky was born in Vitebsk in what is today Belarus. He learned several languages as a child, performed exceptionally well in Russian and mathematics at the Medvednikov Gymnasium after moving to Moscow, and graduated with a gold medal in 1913. He then travelled to Europe, visiting Palestine, briefly studying medicine at Montpellier, France, and taking premedical courses at the University of Edinburgh.
Having returned to Russia before the outbreak of World War I, Velikovsky enrolled in the University of Moscow and received a medical degree in 1921. Then he left Russia for Berlin. There he edited the twin volumes, Scripta Universitatis, for which Albert Einstein prepared the mathematical-physical section. In 1924 he married Elisheva Kramer, a young violinist.
From 1924 to 1939 Velikovsky lived in Palestine, practicing psychoanalysis - he had studied under Sigmund Freud's pupil, Wilhelm Stekel in Vienna - and editing Scripta Academica Hierosolymitana. In 1930 he published the first paper to suggest epileptics are characterized by pathological encephalograms, now part of the routine diagnostic procedure. Some of his writings appeared in Freud's Imago.
After reading Freud's Moses and Monotheism, Velikovsky conceived the possibility that Pharaoh Akhnaton, the real hero of Freud's book, was the legendary Oedipus (a thesis later argued in his book, Oedipus and Akhnaton). In 1939, Velikovsky took a sabbatical year, traveling with his family to New York only a few weeks before World War II tore Europe apart. For eight months he worked on Oedipus and Akhnaton in the libraries.
In April 1940, Velikovsky theorized that a great natural catastrophe had taken place at the time of the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt - a time when plagues occurred, the Red Sea parted, Mt. Sinai erupted, and the pillar of cloud and fire moved in the sky. Velikovsky claimed he found evidence in an obscure papyrus stored in Leiden in the Netherlands - the lamentations of an Egyptian sage, Ipuwer. The Ipuwer Papyrus, Velikovsky became convinced, parallels the Book of Exodus, describing the same natural catastrophe, the same plagues. As a result he began to reconstruct ancient Middle Eastern history, taking this catastrophe - which brought the downfall of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom - as a starting point from which to synchronize the histories of Egypt and Israel. He titled his work Ages in Chaos.
The cause of the catastrophe terminating the Middle Kingdom remained unexplained. In October, 1940, Velikovsky noticed that the Book of Joshua describes a destructive shower of meteorites occurring before the sun "stood still," in the sky. He believed the authors recorded a cosmic disturbance that must have shaken the entire Earth and might have been related to the upheavals approximately 50 years earlier during the Exodus. A survey of other sources around the world convinced Velikovsky that a global cataclysm had indeed overtaken the Earth, and that Venus played a decisive role in that cataclysm. For ten years he researched and wrote Ages in Chaos and Worlds in Collision. He had by now taken up permanent residence in the United States.
In 1950, after eight publishing houses rejected the Worlds in Collision manuscript, it was finally published by Macmillan. Even before its appearance, the book was enveloped by furious controversy. Within two months Macmillan, intimidated by threats from academicians and scientists – the people who write and buy its textbooks – transferred the book to Doubleday. Worlds in Collision was then the number one best seller in the nation. In 1952 Doubleday published the first volume of Ages in Chaos, which details Velikovsky's historical reconstruction from ca. 1450 BCE to 840 BCE (A sequel, extending the reconstruction to 330 BCE was originally due to appear shortly after the initial volume but was re-worked and enlarged to four volumes, The Assyrian Conquest, The Dark Age of Greece, Rameses II and His Time and Peoples of the Sea.) A few years later Earth in Upheaval was published, which focused on geological and paleontological evidence supporting the occurrence of catastrophic events of a global scale.
For nearly a decade prior to the early 1960s, Velikovsky was persona non grata on college and university campuses. Early space probes sent to Venus, Mars and Jupiter confirmed some of his predictions, most specifically that Venus would be hot. However, most scientists have argued that these seemingly correct predictions were only coincidental. Nevertheless, after that, he began to receive more requests to speak. He lectured, frequently to record crowds, at universities across North America.
In February 1972, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired a one-hour television special featuring Velikovsky and his work (see External Links below), and this was followed by a 30 minute documentary on the BBC in 1973.
The remainder of the 1970s saw Velikovsky devoting a great deal of his time and energy rebutting his critics in academia, and continuing to tour North America and also Europe, delivering lectures on his theories. Several independent societies and journals sprang up to provide a forum for his work, including Pensée and Kronos in the US, and the Society for Interdisciplinary Studies in the UK. By now an elderly man, Velikovsky suffered from diabetes and intermittent depression, seemingly brought on by the academic establishment's continuing rejection of his work, and many wondered if the remaining promised volumes of his work (including a prequel to Worlds in Collision and a sequel to Ages in Chaos) would ever see publication. The last two years of his life finally saw publication of two portions of the aforementioned sequel: Peoples of the Sea (1977) and Rameses II and his Time (1978). Velikovsky died tended by his wife at his Princeton home in 1979.
Legal wranglings appear to have dogged the release of remaining unpublished work. Velikovsky had appointed Professor Lynn E Rose as his literary executor, with plans to issue several more volumes. However, his family managed to retain control of his literary estate. Under the supervision of Velikovsky's wife, two posthumous books appeared: the psychoanalytic work Mankind in Amnesia (1982) and also Stargazers and Gravediggers (1983), which chronicled the hostility of academia to Velikovsky's work.
For many years Velikovsky's estate was controlled by his two daughters, who generally resisted the publication of any further material. (Exceptions include the biography ABA - the Trial and the Torment, issued in the mid-1990s and greeted with rather dubious reviews; also a Hebrew translation of another Ages in Chaos volume, The Dark Age of Greece, was published in Israel.)
However in the 1990s, a large portion of Velikovsky's unpublished book manuscripts, essays and correspondence was available at the Velikovsky Archive site. In 2005, Velikovsky's daughter Ruth Sharon, presented his entire archive to Princeton University Library.
In the 1920s and 1930s, when practicing as a psychiatrist in Palestine, Velikovsky had a dozen or so of his papers on psychiatry and psychoanalysis published in various German and English-language medical and psychoanalytic journals. Topics included a proposal that epileptic patients could be diagnosed by means of their abnormal EEG readings, and a precocious analysis of Sigmund Freud's own dreams.
However, the work for which Velikovsky became best known was developed by him during the early 1940s, whilst living in New York. He summarised his core ideas in an affidavit in November 1942, and in two privately published Scripta Academica pamphlets entitled Theses for the Reconstruction of Ancient History (1945) and Cosmos without Gravitation (1946).
In reality, these theories formed a coherent inter-disciplinary whole. However, rather than have the entire edifice dismissed because of potential flaws in any one area, and with the doors of academic journals seemingly now closed to him, Velikovsky then chose to publish them as a series of book volumes, aimed at a lay audience, dealing separately with his proposals on ancient history, and with areas more relevant to the physical sciences.
Velikovsky was a passionate Zionist, and this did steer the focus of his work, although its scope was considerably more far-reaching than this. The entire body of work could be said to stem from an attempt to solve the following problem: that there appeared to be insufficient correlation in the written or archeological records between Jewish history (as recorded in Biblical and other sources) and the history of the adjoining nations (especially Egypt).
Velikovsky searched for common mention of events within literary records, and in the Ipuwer Papyrus, he believed he had found a contemporary Egyptian account of the Israelite Exodus - moreover, he interpreted both accounts as descriptions of a great natural catastophe.
Velikovsky attempted to investigate the physical cause of the Exodus event, and extrapolated backwards and forwards in history from this point, cross-comparing written and mythical records from cultures on every inhabited continent, using them to attempt synchronisms of the historical records, yielding what he believed to be further periodic natural catastrophes which can be global in scale.
He arrived at a body of radical inter-disciplinary ideas which might be summarized as:
- Planet Earth has suffered natural catastrophes on a global scale, both before and during mankind's recorded history.
- There is evidence for these catastrophes in the geological record (here Velikovsky was espousing Catastrophist ideas as opposed to the prevailing Uniformitarian notions) and archeological record. The extinction of many species had occurred catastrophically, not by gradual Darwinian means.
- The catastrophes which occurred within the memory of mankind are recorded in myths, legends and written history of all ancient cultures and civilisations. Velikovsky pointed to striking concordances in the accounts of many cultures, and proposed that they referred to the same real events, all couched in the individual religious and cultural viewpoints of their authors. He put forward the psychoanalytic idea of "Cultural Amnesia" as a mechanism whereby these literal records came to be regarded as mere myths and legends.
- The cause of these natural catastrophes were close encounters between the Earth and other bodies with the solar system - not least what were now the planets Saturn, Jupiter, Venus and Mars, these bodies having moved upon different orbits within human memory.
- To explain the celestial mechanics necessary to permit these changes to the configuration of the solar system, Velikovsky proposed that electromagnetic forces played a much greater role than acknowledged in a purely Newtonian (gravitation-only) model.
- Velikovsky argued that the conventional chronology of the Near East and classical world, based upon Egyptian Sothic dating and the king lists of Manetho, was wholly flawed. This was the reason for the apparent absence of correlation between the Biblical record and those of neighbouring cultures, and also the cause of the enigmatic "dark ages" in Greece and elsewhere. Velikovsky shifted several chronologies and dynasties from the Egyptian Old Kingdom to Ptolemaic times by centuries (a scheme he called the Revised Chronology), placing the Exodus contemporary with the fall of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. He proposed numerous other synchronisms stretching up to the time of Alexander the Great. He argued that these eliminate phantom "dark ages", and vindicate the biblical accounts of history and those recorded by Herodotus.
Some of Velikovsky's specific postulated catastrophes included:
- A tentative suggestion that Earth had once been a satellite of a "proto-Saturn" body, before its current Solar orbit.
- That the Deluge (Noah's Flood) had been caused by proto-Saturn entering a nova state, and ejecting much of its mass into space.
- A suggestion that the planet Mercury was involved in the Tower of Babel catastrophe.
- Jupiter had been the culprit for the catastrophe which saw the destruction of the 'Cities of the Plain' (Sodom and Gomorrah)
- Periodic close contacts with a cometary Venus (which had been ejected from Jupiter) had caused the Exodus events (c.1500 BCE) and Joshua's subsequent "sun standing still" incident.
- Periodic close contacts with Mars had caused havoc in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE.
As noted above, Velikovsky had conceived the broad sweep of this material by the early 1940s. However within his lifetime, whilst he continued to research and expand upon the details of his ideas, he released only selected portions of his work to the public in book form:
- Worlds in Collision (1950) discussed the literary and mythical records of the "Venus" and "Mars" catastrophes
- portions of his Revised Chronology were published as Ages in Chaos (1952), Peoples of the Sea (1977) and Rameses II & His Time (1978).
- Earth in Upheaval (1956) dealt with geological evidence for global natural catastrophes.
Several key portions of the Revised Chronology remained unpublished (although the manuscripts are readily available in the Velikovsky Archive and thus the details of the entire scheme are known). Numerous other authors (such as Donovan Courville, Peter James and David Rohl) have since taken a cue from Velikovsky to develop their own proposed chronological revisions.
Velikovsky's ideas on his earlier Saturn/Mercury/Jupiter events were never published, and the available archived manuscripts are much less developed. However the 'Saturnist' theorists have done much subsequent work in this area, proposing that Earth was indeed a satellite of Saturn (a 'brown dwarf' star) before the Holocene period.
Of all the strands of his work, Velikovsky published least on his ideas regarding the role of electromagnetism in astronomy. In fact he retreated from the propositions in his 1946 monograph 'Cosmos without Gravitation', a work he and his supporters preferred to ignore subsequently, and a probable catalyst for the aggressively antipathetic reaction of astonomers and physicists from its first presentation. However other Velikovskian writers such as Ralph Jeurgens, Earl Milton and Wal Thornhill have embraced and developed these themes to propose a scenario where stars are lit not by internal nuclear fusion, but as the anode focii of galactic-scale electrical discharge currents. These radical ideas are often known as the 'Electric Universe' scenario . They do not find support in the conventional literature.
The Revised Chronology
In order to accommodate his identification of the Ipuwer Papyrus, from the beginning of Egypt's Second Intermediate Period, with the Biblical Exodus, Velikovsky was forced to conduct a massive revision of the chronology of the ancient Near East. The Ipuwer Papyrus was conventionally dated to approximately 350 years before the conventional date of the Exodus (1450 BCE). In order to make his data fit, Velikovsky created a number of increasingly dubious identifications. Thus, Hatshepsut, the woman pharaoh of Egypt, was identified as the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon, and Solomon's kingdom was identified with the land of Punt (normally believed to be somewhere in Ethiopia or southern Arabia) to which Hatshepsut sent an expedition. Thutmose III then becomes King Shishak who sacked Jerusalem at the time of Rehoboam. Velikovsky then separated Horemheb and the 19th Dynasty pharaohs from the earlier 18th dynasty pharaohs. Instead, the 22nd through 25th dynasties follow upon the earlier part of the 18th, leading down to the Assyrian invasions of the early 7th century BCE.
It is here that Horemheb and the 19th Dynasty are to be found, and Velikovsky identifies each of the major 19th dynasty pharaohs with a corresponding pharaoh of the 26th. Thus, Rameses I becomes Necho I, Seti I becomes Psamtik I, Rameses II is Necho II, and Merneptah is Apries. In order to make these identifications work, Velikovsky postulates that the Neo-Babylonian kings are actually identical to the Kings of the Hittites, and therefore that Rameses II's battle with the Hittites at Kadesh is identical to Necho's fight against Nebuchadrezzar at Carchemish. Thus Nabopolassar is Mursili II, Neriglissar is Muwatalli, Labashi-Marduk is Urhi-Teshup, and Nebuchadrezzar II is Hattusili III.
Having arrived at the Persian conquest, Velikovsky now has the problem of fitting in Manetho's 20th and 21st dynasties. The 20th dynasty here becomes identified with the dynasties which ruled a newly independent Egypt in the early 4th century BCE, and the Sea Peoples against whom Rameses III fought are now identified as the Greek mercenaries of the Persian Kings (who are here identified with the Peleset, normally seen as another name for the Philistines). The 21st dynasty then becomes a line of priest-kings who ruled simultaneously with the Persians.
This radical reconstruction of ancient chronology has been universally rejected by mainstream scholars. Although scholars like Peter James and David Rohl who support a major revision of ancient chronology have sometimes acknowledged debts to Velikovsky for the idea of chronological revision, and have very frequently been accused of being Neo-Velikovskians by their critics, their own schemes differ considerably from Velikovsky's, and are considerably less radical than Velikovsky's own.
"And Velikovsky is neither crank nor charlatan—although to state my opinion and to quote one of my colleagues, he is at least gloriously wrong." - Stephen J. Gould Velikovsky in Collision.
Velikovsky's most criticized book, Worlds in Collision, proposed that around the 15th century BCE, a comet or comet-like object (now called the planet Venus), having originally been ejected from Jupiter, passed near Earth, changing Earth's orbit and axis and causing innumerable catastrophes, mentioned in early mythologies and religions around the world. Fifty-two years later, it passed close by again, stopping the Earth's rotation for a while, thus causing more catastrophes. Then, in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, Mars (itself displaced by Venus) made close approaches to the Earth; this incident caused a new round of disturbances and disasters. After that, the current "celestial order" was established. Velikovsky arrived at these proposals using a methodology which would today be called "comparative mythology" - he looked for concordances in myths and written history of unconnected cultures across the world, in particular following a rather literal reading of their accounts of the exploits of planetary deities.
The plausibility of the theory was rejected practically unanimously by the physics community. Both the cosmic chain of events, and the fact that they left no known trace on Earth except as myths, were described as simply contradicting the basic laws of physics. More recently, the absence of supporting material in ice-core studies (such as the Ice-3 and Vostok cores) has removed any basis for the proposition of a global catastrophe of the proposed dimension within the later Holocene period.
Supporters contend that a few of Velikovsky's predictions have been validated. Amongst the most prominent is the prediction that Venus would be very hot. This argument has been countered by noting that Venus is indeed very hot, but not at all for the reasons proposed by Velikovsky. Critics further claim that the vast majority of Velikovsky's predictions turned out to be far from correct. His supporters have continued to claim counter-refutations, but space-probe results do not support the proposal.
In fact, Velikovsky started from myths and traditions of ancient peoples and cultures, postulated that they are based on actual events, including a chain of worldwide global catastrophes, and then he constructed an account to physically explain these events. He made no attempt to analyze his theory from a physical point of view — he was not a physicist — (a fact underscored by the content of Cosmos Without Gravitation) and often remarked that if they contradict the theories of physicists, then the physicists must correct their theories.
In addition, Velikovsky's revised chronology of Egypt also came under attack from Egyptologists. It was claimed that Velikovsky's usage of material for proof is often very selective. His theories are also claimed to be inconsistent with current theories about the actual basis of mythologies. In 1965 the leading cuneiformist Abraham Sachs, in a forum at Brown University, dismissed Velikovsky's use of Mesopotamian cuneiform sources. His assertion that Minoan Linear B was an archaic Greek was indeed validated, but his announcement was predated by Michael Ventris' commitment to just that proposition.
By 1974, the controversy surrounding Velikovsky's work had permeated US society to the point where the American Association for the Advancement of Science felt obliged to address the situation, as they had previously done in relation to UFOs, and devoted a scientific meeting to Velikovsky, featuring (among others) Velikovsky himself and Carl Sagan. Sagan gave a critique of Velikovsky's ideas (the book version of Sagan's critique is much longer than that presented in the talk, see below). Sagan's arguments were popular in nature and he did not remain to debate Velikovsky in person, facts that were used by Velikovsky's followers to discredit his analysis (see Ginenthal in References below). Sagan rebutted these charges, and further attacked Velikovsky's ideas in his PBS television series Cosmos.
A very thorough examination of the original material cited in Velikovsky's publications, and a severe criticism of its use, was published by Bob Forrest (see below). A short analysis of the position of arguments in the late 20th century is given by Dr Velikovsky's ex-associate, and Kronos editor, C. Leroy Ellenberger, in his A Lesson from Velikovsky.
The storm of controversy created by his publications may have helped revive the Catastrophist movements in the second half of the 20th century; it is also held by some working in the field that progress has actually been retarded by the negative aspects of the so-called Velikovsky Affair. Works with similar themes, such as those of de Santillana and von Dechend, Allan and Delair, and Clube and Napier (see References below), have met in part with an academic tolerance never experienced by Velikovsky himself, and even with acclaim by critics of the originals.
Books by Velikovsky
- Worlds in Collision (1950)
- Ages in Chaos (1952)
- Earth In Upheaval (1956)
- Oedipus and Akhnaton (1960)
- Peoples of the Sea (1977)
- Rameses II and His Times (1978)
- Mankind in Amnesia (1982)
- Stargazers and Gravediggers (1983)
- Velikovsky correspondence and unpublished works
- Immanuel Velikovsky Papers at Princeton University Library
- Velikovsky - The Bonds of the Past, Video - 1972 CBC Documentary, by Henry Zemel
- The Velikovsky Affair - Second edition of the Alfred de Grazia book (see References)
- Worlds Still Colliding letter from C.Leroy Ellenberger
- Google Directory entry
- Skeptic's Dictionary entry on Velikovsky
- A transcript of the 1974 meeting of the AAAS devoted to Velikovsky.
- Jerry Pournelle's commentaries on Sagan's arguments at the AAAS meeting.
- Pro-Velikovsky site with links to others
- NASA Asteroid and Comet Impacts site
- Velikovsky in Collision - Stephen J. Gould
- Astronomical Pseudo-Science, A Skeptics Resource List (2003)
- Ice Core Evidence - Charles Ginenthal
- Minds in Ablation Sean Mewhinney responds to Ice Core Evidence
- An Antidote to Velikovskian Delusions - Leroy Ellenberger
- Top Ten Reasons why Velikovsky is wrong about Worlds in Collision - Leroy Ellenberger
- A lesson from Velikovsky - Leroy Ellenberger
- El-Arish Revisited - Sean Mewhinney
- Cosmology: Myth or Science - Hannes Alfven
- Abraham Sachs' address at Brown Uni 1965 on cuneiform sources
Organisations sympathetic to Velikovsky's work:
- Aeon: The Journal of Myth and Science
- Catastrophism! Man, Myth and Mayhem in Ancient History and the Sciences
- Kronos Press
- Society for Interdisciplinary Studies
- Pole Shift Preparation, Monitoring earth changes in anticipation of a pole shift
- The Velikovskian, A Journal of Myth, History and Science
- Allan, D.S. and J.B. Delair (1995). When The Earth Nearly Died. Gateway Books, UK. published in USA as Cataclysm by Bear & Co, 1997. A precis is here.
- Bauer, Henry H. (1984). Beyond Velikovsky. The History of a Public Controversy. University of Illinois, Urbana.
- Clube, V. and Bill Napier (1982). The Cosmic Serpent. Universe Books, New York.
- Clube, V. and Bill Napier (1990). The Cosmic Winter. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.
- de Grazia, Alfred, Juergens R.E., Stecchini L.C. (Eds.) (1978). The Velikovsky Affair - Scientism versus Science. 2ed., Metron Publications, Princeton, New Jersey. Also online.
- de Santillana, Giorgio and Hertha Von Dechend (1977). Hamlet's Mill: an Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time. Godine, Boston.
- Forrest, Bob (1981). Velikovsky's Sources. In 6 parts, with Notes & Index Volume. Privately published by the author, Manchester.
- Ginenthal, Charles (1995). Carl Sagan & Immanuel Velikovsky. New Falcon Publications, Tempe Arizona
- Goldsmith, Donald, (Ed.) (1977) Scientists Confront Velikovsky. Norton. Proceedings of a symposium at the 1974 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
- Miller, Alica (1977). Index to the Works of Immanuel Velikovsky. Glassboro State College, Glassboro.
- Pearlman, Dale, (Ed.) (1996) Stephen J. Gould and Immanuel Velikovsky. Ivy Press Books, Forest Hills, N.Y.
- PENSÉE. 1972-1975. Immanuel Velikovsky Reconsidered. I - X. Student Academic Freedon Forum, Portland.
- Ransom, C.J. (1976) The Age of Velikovsky. Delta, New York.
- Rohl, David (1996) A Test of Time. Arrow Books.
- Sagan, Carl (1979) Broca's Brain. Random House. Reissued 1986 by Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-33689-5
- Talbott, Stephen L. (1977) Velikovsky Reconsidered. Warner Books, New York.