Thor Heyerdahl and the Pyramids of Greece

by Richard Poe
Friday, April 26, 2002

12:00 am Eastern Time
1 Comment

WITH ALL the war news blaring from our TV sets, few Americans found time last week to mark the passing of 87-year-old Thor Heyerdahl. Yet his death haunts and accuses us, like a dagger pointed at our hearts.

The great Norwegian explorer lived as few men dare to live in this effeminate age. Heyerdahl roamed the seas in primitive, handmade craft, as intimate with death as his Viking forebears had been.

In 1947, he sailed more than 4,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean in a balsa-log raft named Kon-Tiki. He crossed the Atlantic in 1970, in a ship of reeds, modeled after those of the pharaohs.

Armchair critics sneered, dismissing Heyerdahl’s exploits as publicity stunts, devoid of scientific merit. A shameless few even mock the great man in death.

“History Isn’t Made By Daft Men on Rafts,” reads the headline of an article by Ross Clark in the London Sunday Telegraph of April 21.

“The flaw in the Heyerdahl approach is that it provides rather more entertainment than it does enlightenment,” sniffs Clark. “Thanks to Kon-Tiki, almost every layman now believes that […] the Polynesians jumped onto balsawood rafts and crossed the Pacific. Heyerdahl did it and so, therefore, must the Polynesians. But all Heyerdahl showed was that it was possible to sail for 4,500 miles on a raft […] ”

Well, yes. That is “all” that Heyerdahl showed. But for many of us, that is enough.

Safety first is the motto of our age. We prefer full-body searches at the airport and national ID cards imprinted with our DNA codes to the scary possibility of maybe tangling with a terrorist at 30,000 feet.

Heyerdahl thought differently. He was a man from another age.

Stone Age tribes — the ancestors of today’s Australian aborigines — once crossed from Southeast Asia to Australia by boat or raft, far from sight of any land. A similar spirit drove the Stone Age seafarers who settled Malta, Crete and the misty British Isles.

Of prehistoric mariners, Norwegian archaeologist A.W. Brogger declared, “Distance was no object […] they knew no frontiers, needed no passport or identity papers or tickets. The earth was free, the world lay open, and they wandered across it as though a thousand miles was nothing but a joyous adventure.”

That was the spirit of Thor Heyerdahl.

I corresponded briefly with Heyerdahl in 1997. At the time, I was writing Black Spark, White Fire, a book which examines the theory that Egyptian seafarers may have landed in Greece during the Bronze Age, planted colonies, founded royal dynasties and helped kindle Western civilization.

Greek legend holds that an Egyptian king named Danaos sailed a war fleet to the Peloponnese, conquered Greece and ordered the natives to call themselves “Danaans” in his honor.

A number of pyramids dot the Greek landscape to this day, structures of great antiquity and mysterious origin. Greek archaeologist Theodore Spyropoulos links them to the royal house of Danaos.

Spyropoulos’ theory is understandably controversial. But conventional scholars treat it with far more contempt than it deserves. They claim that Egyptians were poor sailors, incapable of reaching Greece.

Oddly, no one disputes that Egyptian vessels made regular stops in Crete, Lebanon, and even Ethiopia. If they could sail 900 miles down the Red Sea, why not a mere 560 miles to Greece?

I thought a quote from Heyerdahl would lend weight to my argument. Tracking him down to the Canary Islands, I interviewed the great man by fax.

“[The Egyptians] could very easily have sailed from Egypt to Greece […]” Heyerdahl responded. An Egyptian reed boat could probably make the crossing in, “a week on average,” he estimated.

I will never forget the moment when those blessed words, under Heyerdahl’s letterhead, fell gently into my fax tray.

And now let me make a confession.

Sometimes I dream of duplicating Danaos’s voyage in an Egyptian-style vessel — just as Heyerdahl might have done. Go ahead. Laugh. It’s a silly dream, I know, especially for a man like me, whose greatest nautical feat to date has been circumnavigating Manhattan by kayak.

Yet, every gust of salt air from the East River sends my mind roaming. Maybe I’ll never muster the courage or money to organize such an expedition. But because of Heyerdahl, I dreamed of it.

Heroes, conquerors, explorers and knaves — all alike must die. But the greatest men leave something behind. The very lives they lived cause other men to dream. They make our puny lives greater, if only in our imaginations.

Such a man was Thor Heyerdahl.

Cross-posted from 04.26.02


One Response to “Thor Heyerdahl and the Pyramids of Greece”
  1. Richard Poe says:

    See reader comments at
    Posted on 04/25/2002 4:35:53 PM PDT

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