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Numbers into Buildings

Peter TompkinsBeing sick in bed on this Christmas Eve in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico has afforded me the welcome opportunity to spend the day with Peter Tompkins’s Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids. Tompkins, a journalist, World War II spy, and occult theorist (AP obituary; profile), was a fixture in the background of my childhood. His 1971 classic Secrets of the Great Pyramid (Mysteries came later, in 1976), was given to me by my uncle, like most of his gifts to me, at an age when I was still far to young to know what to do with it. So the book sat on my shelf, tantalizing with its mathematical diagrams and antique woodcuts.

The gist of Tompkins’s view of the universe comes out in his preface to Mysteries:

We live in a Dark Age, and have, for several thousand years. It is time for a renaissance—with the wisdom of the past.

… Augustus Le Plongeon calls architecture an unerring standard of the degree of civilization reached by a people, “as correct a test of race as is language, and more easily understood, not being subject to change.” If it is true that a nation’s capital reflects its standards of architecture, we risk being judged by the phony cyclopean walls of the Office Building of the U.S. House of Representatives unless we engender architects sensitive to the cosmic values of geometry, such as R. Buckminster Fuller would envisage.

The ancient civilizations attached great importance to numbers as an exact language in which physical and spiritual ideals could be expressed and preserved; hence, they built numbers into their buildings.

Next, the book jumps into nearly two hundred riveting pages on the story of how Europeans gradually came to grasp the significance of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilization, from Cortes to the Romantic archaeologists. Tompkins relishes in details and tangents, which come out especially in the extended picture captions, sometimes spanning entire pages. Nearly every page includes a picture or two, whether it be a period drawing of Tenochtitlan as the conquistadors saw it or a portrait showing just how handsome Alexander von Humboldt was. The relationship between text and image has much in common with the hardcover version of Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols, an old favorite of mine.

Teotihuacan from aboveWhere Tompkins really shines, though, are the chapters grouped under the heading “scientific analysis.” Here, charting all sorts of alignments among the pyramids against geography and the stars, he spells out his conviction in evidences that something very deep indeed was at work in the ancient structures. Unfortunately, these are the parts least engrossing to my temperament, so for today I am content to merely admire their form and effect rather than delving into the actual claims. Over the years I’ve seen some arguments from trustworthy authorities that Tompkins’s claims of ancient sophistication are overblown. So I can’t let myself take it all too seriously, only to enjoy the accomplishment.

Throughout the foregoing, Mysteries drops hints here and there of similarities with other ancient civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as the occasional mention of Atlantis. In the book’s final section of chapters, though, Tompkins takes on these concerns outright, without flinching. Here he reveals himself as an all-out New Age enthusiast (see his aptly-named son Ptolemy’s memoir on the subject). Ancient Mesoamerican civilization, Tompkins believes, was likely seeded by seafaring Phoenicians who came by way of the mythical continent of Atlantis. Part of the evidence for this he takes from the visions of the great twentieth century psychic Edgar Cayce. I kept wondering why his credulity fell short of that beloved occult fad of the 70s, ancient, alien astronaut theory.

Regardless of how silly this all might sound to the sober-minded among us, I promise that Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids makes fantastic sick-day reading. Maybe even healthy-day. What one has to love about Tompkins, in addition to his virtuosity with words and pictures, is his powerful sense of trust in cosmic truth and in that truth’s ability to make us better. This, combined with the gusto of a spy, makes knowledge into life’s greatest adventure. From the dedication of Mysteries, one can imagine Tompkins at work, an Indiana Jones who knows that truth comes only to those willing to get their hands dirty.

To the staff of the Library of Congress, guarantors of free access to the sources, without which enjoyment of the First Amendment to the Constitution could be reduced to an exercise in vacuo.