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KRONOS Vol IX, No. 2

THE SON OF TANIT AMONG THE OLMECS: Additional Evidence of a Possible Phoenician Contact with the Olmecs


Various recent studies have suggested the presence during the millennium before Christ of Old World probes into the Western Hemisphere. Barry Fell, in America B. C., speaks of Iberian, Phoenician, and Carthaginian inscriptions in the Mississippi Valley and its tributaries, as well as in Paraguay.(1) One of the inscriptions found in the Oklahoma and Colorado regions purportedly reads "Tanit the Sublime" and contains a portrait of this Carthaginian goddess.(2) Pierre Carnac, in Les Conquérants du Pacifique, presents some of the hypotheses pointing to a trade contact between the west coast of North and South America and Asia, starting in the first half of the first millennium B. C.(3)

Given the fact that Olmec civilization, the first advanced society of North America, grew up at this time on the Atlantic coast of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec - where Atlantic and Pacific are linked by the Coatzacoalcos river valley - is it not likely that the Olmecs were stimulated by these two trans-oceanic routes of exploration, if those routes indeed existed?

Several studies have concerned themselves with this question. The possibility of a Chinese influence on the Olmecs has been explored by Gordon Eckholm,(4) R. A. Jairazbhoy,(5) and Betty Meggers.(6) The theory of a Phoenician contact with the Olmecs has been formulated by James Bailey,(7) R. A. Jairazbhoy,(8) and Ivan Van Sertima.(9)

Van Sertima stresses the naval ability of the Phoenicians (whose circumnavigation of Africa is generally accepted), (10) the need to search out new sources of iron in the Iron Age,(11) the Semitic features of some Olmec art figures(12) (and in one case of the turned-up shoe shared by the Phoenicians(13)), and the similarity of one Olmec work of art to representations of the Phoenician god Melquart,(14) identifiable as the Baal of Tyre.(15)

Jairazbhoy's arguments include Mexican Indian legends to the effect that their ancestors came from a land to the east,(16) the claim of Rameses III to have sent his (largely Phoenician) navy to the "ends of the world'',(17) the similarity of helmets depicted on Olmecs and ancient Egyptians,(18) a posited sharing of a custom of penis truncation or mutilation,(19) a disputed sharing of the use of cylinder seals,(20) and the many similarities in the religious beliefs.(21) Jairazbhoy also suggests a Hebrew element in the purported contact, pointing to the incorporation into the Popol Vuh of the biblical creation story and flood legend, as well as to the Mayan claim that the story of the parting of the Red Sea refers to their own ancestors.(22)

While admitting that the debate remains open, Soustelle rejects all such evidence as too imprecise and intuitive and calls for dealing only with incontestable facts.(23) Perhaps a consideration of the linguistic evidence can supply more tangible indications. The early identification of Hebrew (hence perhaps actually Phoenician) words among the Amerindians by Las Casas and other early Spaniards is suspect as having been influenced by the wide-spread European concept of the Amerindians as the lost tribes of Israel.(24) However, the name of the man claimed by the Indians of southern Mexico and Guatemala as their ancestor from the land to the east and the name of his distant home should make for a more solid test case, since proper names, unlike common nouns, are normally left untranslated as they pass from language to language.

The Mayans, cultural heirs of the Olmecs, believed that one of their ancestors, by the name of Votan, "was ordered by the gods to go to America to found a culture".(25) While neither the name Votan nor any reasonable facsimile of it seems to be listed in the Mayan dictionary,(26) the name is very close to a common Punic appellation. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians often used personal names beginning with the prefix [*!* Image: Hebrew text] ("Bod" or "Vod", the B and V not being clearly distinguished in the orthography), meaning "offshoot" or "offspring of", followed by the name of that person's patron deity,(27) as in the example of Bod-Baal, ally of Baal against his enemies.(28) One of the most popular deities in Carthage was the goddess Tanit, and the name "offspring of Tanit" was Bodtanit orVodtanit [*!* Image: Hebrew text].(29) Since "dt" and simply "t" can sometimes give the same pronunciation, this leaves us with Votanit or, with the easily occurring omission of the final syllable, with Votan.

If the concept of this name is extended to mean "people or followers of Tanit", Votan could mean not only the Culture Bringer, but a whole class of priest-colonizers. Certainly, it would give a more complete view of the pervasiveness of the jaguar cult and were-jaguar motif among the Olmecs (as opposed to Jairazbhoy's interpretation of leopard-skin-clad Osirian priests(30)) and the supposed Olmec practices of infant sacrifice and castration. Tanit-Astarte was worshipped among both Phoenicians and Egyptians. Her followers performed both child sacrifice(31) and ritual emasculation,(32) reminiscent of Olmec motifs at La Venta(33) and Monte Alban.(34) Furthermore, she was depicted as a lioness-headed goddess,(35) which may explain the matings of jaguars and humans, shown along with their were-jaguar offspring in the art remains at San Lorenzo and Potrero Nuevo.(36)

Mayan myth further identifies the home of Votan as Valum Chivim and his place of arrival as Valum Votan.(37) The syllables Ch-v-m [*!* Image: Hebrew text] form the Punic word for "washer".(38) If Votan's home city was remembered as the town or place of the washer, this calls to mind the fact that the ancient Canaanite kings at the Spring New Year Festival underwent ritual ablution, as part of a rite of imitative magic to induce the god Baal to send rain.(39) The word Phoenician, "men of the purple dye", derives from the Greek translation of the Phoenician name for themselves, Canaanite, so that the two names refer to one people (40)

Jairazbhoy has suggested that the Olmecs also had libation basins.(41) Ritual libation may further relate to the oracle cult of a Votan priesthood "washing and opening the mouths"(42) of the colossal Olmec stone heads. (Bailey mentions one such example at La Venta.(43)) In such a ritual, the stone head would presumably "speak" the will of the god Ba'al Hammon in Phoenician custom. This fierce god was worshipped in the Egyptian city of Tanis when Olmec culture was first appearing in the New World, and in Carthage when the Olmecs were at their height.(44)

If a Phoenician contact was a factor in the trade development of the Olmecs, it is worth noting that the Olmec culture collapsed at the same time as the naval power of the Carthaginians, those last remnants of the independent Phoenicians. The most impressive Olmec ritual center, La Venta, is believed to have been abandoned around 400 or 300 B.C.(45) However, Olmec culture seems to have survived at Tres Zapotes until around 200 B.C.(46) After a period of life and death struggle, it was in 207 B.C. that Carthage was decisively defeated and permanently subordinated to the will of Rome.(47)

Hopefully, these linguistic and chronological considerations will add a few more pieces to the incomplete knowledge of the early influences on the Olmecs.


1. Barry Fell, America B.C. (N.Y.,1976), pp.98 and 261-267. [Reviewed in KRONOS III, pp. 86-88. - LMG]
2. Thomas Fleming, "Evidence Proves It: Columbus was a Latecomer", Family Weekly of The Brownsville Herald (January 29, 1978), p. 16.
3. Pierre Carnac, Les Conque'rants du Pacifique: 6,000 Ans de Navigations vers le Nouveau Monde (Paris, 1975), pp. 187 and 242-250.
4. Eckholm's points are summarized in Charles R. Wicke's book Olmec: An Early Art Style of PreColumbian Mexico (Tucson, 1971), pp. 55-56.
5. R . A . Jairazbhoy , Ancient Egyptians and Chinese in America (Totowa, N .J ., 1974) .
6. Megger's points are summarized in Jacques Soustelle's book Les Olmeques: La plus ancienne cirdisation du Mexique (Paris, 1970), pp. 186-187.
7. James Bailey, The God-kings and the Titans (N.Y.,1973). [Reviewed in KRONOS
II:2, pp. 101-104. - LMG]
8. R. A. Jairazbhoy, op. cit.
9. Ivan Van Sertima, They Came before Columbus (N.Y., 1976). [Reviewed in KRONOS III:1, pp. 85-86. - LMG]
10. Ibid., pp.50 and 135.
11. Ibid., p. 138.
12. Ibid., p. 147.
13. Ibid., p. 150.
14. Ibid., p. 151.
15. Egerton Sykes, Dictionary of Non-Classical Mythology (N.Y.,1965), p. 139. [Melqart was also equated with Heracles. See G. C. Picard and C. Picard, The Life and Death of Carthage (N.Y., 1968). LMG]
16. R. A. Jairazbhoy, op. cit., pp. 8-9 and 17.
17. Ibid., pp. 14-16.
18. Ibid., p. 19.
19. Ibid., p. 33.
20. Ibid., p. 35.
21. Ibid., pp.49-66.
22. Ibid., pp. 22-24.
23. Soustelle, op. cit., p. 187.
24. This development is well traced by Lynn Glaser's book Indians or Jews? (Gilroy, CA, 1973).
25. Irene Nicholson, Mexican and Central American Mythology (London, 1967), p. 136.
26. Juan Martinez Hernandez (ed.), Dicciona Ho de Motul Maya-Espanol, A tribuido a Fray Antonio de Ciudad Real y Arte de Lengua Maya por Fray Juan Coronel (Merida, Yucatan, 1930).
27. A. Bloch, Phoenicisches Glossar (Berlin, 1890), p. 19.
28. Egerton Sykes, op. cit., p. 26.
29. A. Bloch, op. cit., p. 20.
30. R. A. Jairazbhoy, op. cit., p. 57.
31. James Bailey, op. cit., p. 48
32. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition, Micropaedia, Vol. 17 (Chicago, 1976), p. 966. (Tanit is treated as incorporating Astarte and Anath.)
33. James Bailey, op. cit., p. 51.
34. R. A. Jairazbhoy, op. cit., p. 32.
35. Egerton Sykes, op. cit., p. 19.
36. Ramon Valdiosera, Los Misterios Sexuales de los Olmecas (Mexico, D.F.,1975), and R. A. Jairazbhoy, op. cit., p. 28.
37. Irene Nicholson, op. cit., p. 136.
38. A. Bloch, op. cit., p. 34.
39. John Gray, The Canaanites (N.Y.,1964), pp. 131-137 and 159.
40. Zellig S. Harris, A Grammar of the Phoenician Language (New Haven, 1936), pp. 111-112.
41. R. A. Jairazbhoy, op. cit., p. 43.
42. Ibid., p. 26.
43. James Bailey, op. cit., p. 51.
44. Egerton Sykes, op. cit., p. 26.
45. Michael D. Coe, America's First Civilization (N.Y., 1968), pp. 63 and 75.
46. Ignacio Bernal, El Mundo Olmeca (Mexico, 1968), p. 156.
47. Jean Mazel, Avec les Pheniciens: A la poursuite du soled sur la route de l 'or et de l'e'tain (Paris,1968), p. 20.


1. G. Ashe, et al., The Quest for America (N.Y., 1971).
2. 1. Bernal, The Olmec World (Berkeley, 1973).
3. H. Breuer, Columbus Was Chinese (N.Y., 1970).
4. N. Davies, Voyagers to the New World (N.Y., 1979).
5. B. Fell, Saga America (N .Y., 1980) .
6. C. Gordon, Before Columbus (N.Y., ] 971) .
7. C. Gordon, Riddles in History (N.Y., 1974).
8. L. M. Greenberg, The Orient and Pre-Columbia America (Univ. of Pa., unpublished thesis, 1964).
9. L. M. Greenberg, "Sagan's Folly," KRONOS III:2 (Winter-1977), pp. 63-68.
10. C. Invin, Fair Gods and Stone Faces (N.Y., 1963).
11. F. Katz, The Ancient American Civilizations (N.Y., 1972), pp. 9-18.
12. Man Across the Sea, ed. by C. L. Riley, et. al. (Austin, 1971).
13. H. Mertz, Pale Ink (Chicago, 1972).
14. S. Moscati, The World of the Phoenicians (N.Y., 1970), Chapter 10.
15. A. Von Wuthenau, The Art of Terracotta Pottery in Pre-Columbian Central and South America (N.Y ., 1965).

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