Immanuel Velikovsky (Russian: Иммануил Великовский Hebrew: עמנואל וליקובסקי, also Emmanuel Velikovsky) (b. 4:35 pm June 10 (May 29, Old Style) 1895 Vitebsk, d. November 17, 1979) is best known as the author of a number of controversial books reinterpreting the events of ancient history, in particular the US bestseller Worlds in Collision, published in 1950. Earlier, he played a role in the founding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and was a respected psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.
His books use comparative mythology and ancient literary sources (including the Bible) to argue that Earth has suffered catastrophic close-contacts with other planets (principally Venus and Mars) in ancient times. Velikovsky argued that electromagnetic effects play an important role in celestial mechanics. He also proposed a revised chronology for ancient Egypt, Greece, Israel and other cultures of the ancient Near East. The revised chronology aimed at explaining the so-called "Dark Age" of the eastern Mediterranean (ca. 1100 – 750 BCE) and reconciling biblical history with mainstream archeology and Egyptian chronology.
In general, Velikovsky's theories have been vigorously rejected or ignored by the academic community. although Velikovsky had been invited to give lectures to nearly 50 universities, over 25 colleges, and organisations and institutes such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, IBM, and NASA (twice). Nonetheless, his books often sold well and gained an enthusiastic support in lay circles, often fuelled by claims of unfair treatment for Velikovsky by orthodox academia. The controversy surrounding his work and its reception is often referred to as "the Velikovsky affair". In a letter to Immanuel Velikovsky in April 1973, "The Senate of the University of Lethbridge recently voted to accept the unanimous recommendation of our General Faculties Council that you [Velikovsky] be awarded the degree of Doctor of Arts and Science; the degree to be conferred at the Spring Convocation in 1974."
Immanuel Velikovsky was born in 1895 to a prosperous Jewish family, in Vitebsk, Russia (part of modern-day Belarus). The son of Shimon (Simon Yehiel) Velikovsky (1859 – 1937) and Beila Grodensky (~1860 –1928), he learned several languages as a child, was sent away to study at the Medvednikov Gymnasium in Moscow, where he performed well in Russian and mathematics. He graduated with a gold medal in 1913. Velikovsky then traveled in Europe and visited Palestine before briefly studying medicine at Montpellier in France and taking premedical courses at the University of Edinburgh. He returned to Russia before the outbreak of World War I, enrolled in the University of Moscow, and received a medical degree in 1921.
Upon taking his medical degree, Velikovsky left Russia for Berlin. There, with the financial support of his father, Velikovsky edited and published a pair of volumes of scientific papers, translated into Hebrew language|Hebrew, titled Scripta Universitatis Atque Bibliothecae Hierosolymitanarum ("Writings of the Jerusalem University & Library"). He enlisted Albert Einstein to prepare the volume dealing with mathematics and physics. Once completed, this project was a cornerstone in the formation of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; the fledgling university was able to donate copies of the Scripta to the libraries of other academic institutions, who would then send complimentary copies of their own publications, thus helping the Hebrew University to stock its library.
In 1923, Velikovsky married Elisheva Kramer, a young violinist.
From 1924 to 1939 Velikovsky lived in what was then Palestine, practicing medicine (both general practice and psychiatry), and also psychoanalysis (he had studied under Sigmund Freud's pupil, Wilhelm Stekel in Vienna). During this time he had a dozen or so papers published in medical and psychoanalytic journals, including, in 1930, the first paper to suggest epilepsy is characterized by abnormal encephalograms, now part of the routine diagnostic procedure, and papers in Freud's Imago, including a precocious analysis of Freud's own dreams.
In 1939, with the prospect of war looming, Velikovsky travelled with his family to New York, intending to spend a sabbatical year researching for his book Oedipus & Akhnaton (which, inspired by Freud's Moses and Monotheism, explored the possibility that Pharaoh Akhenaton was the legendary Oedipus). Freud had argued that Akhenaton, the supposedly monotheistic Egyptian pharaoh, was the source of the religious principles that Moses taught to the people of Israel in the desert. Freud's claim (and that of others before him) was based in part on the resemblance of Psalm 104 in the Bible to an Egyptian hymn discovered on the wall of the Tomb of Akhenaton's general, Ai, in Akhenaton's city of Akhetaten. To disprove Freud's claim as well as to prove the Exodus as such, Velikovsky sought evidence for the Exodus in Egyptian documents. One such document was the Ipuwer Papyrus which reports events similar to several of the Biblical plagues. Since conventional Egyptology dated the Ipuwer Papyrus much earlier than either the Biblical date for the Exodus (ca. 1500 – 1450 BCE) or the Exodus date accepted by many of those who accepted the conventional chronology of Egypt (ca. 1250 BCE), Velikovsky had to revise or correct the conventional chronology.
Within weeks of his arrival in the United States, World War II began. Soon launching on a tangent from his original book project, Velikovsky began to develop the radical catastrophist cosmology and revised chronology theories for which he would become notorious (see below). For the remainder of the Second World War, now as a permanent resident of New York City, he continued to research and write about his ideas, searching for a means to disseminate them to academia and the public. He privately published two small Scripta Academica pamphlets summarising his theories in 1945 (Theses for the Reconstruction of Ancient History and Cosmos Without Gravitation). His mailing a copy of the latter to astronomer Harlow Shapley in 1947 was to have particular repercussions.
In 1950, after eight publishing houses rejected the Worlds in Collision manuscript, it was finally published by Macmillan, who had a large presence in the academic textbook market. Even before its appearance, the book was enveloped by furious controversy, when Harper's Magazine published a highly positive feature on it, as did Reader's Digest, with what would today be called a creationist slant. This came to the attention of Shapley, who opposed the publication of the work, having been made familiar with Velikovsky's claims through the pamphlet Velikovsky had given him, Cosmos Without Gravitation. Shapley threatened to organize a textbook boycott of Macmillan for its publication of Worlds in Collision, and within two months the book was transferred to Doubleday. It was by then a best seller in the United States. In 1952, Doubleday published the first installment in Velikovsky's revised chronology, Ages in Chaos, followed by the Earth in Upheaval (a geological volume) in 1955. In November 1952, Velikovsky moved from Manhattan to Princeton, New Jersey.
For most of the 1950s and early 1960s, Velikovsky was persona non grata on college and university campuses. After this, he began to receive more requests to speak. He lectured, frequently to record crowds, at universities across North America (see List of Velikovsky Lectures). In 1972, Velikovsky's public profile was raised still higher when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired a one-hour television special featuring Velikovsky and his work, and this was followed by a thirty-minute documentary by the BBC in 1973.
The remainder of the 1970s saw Velikovsky devoting a great deal of his time and energy to rebutting his critics in academia, and continuing to tour North America and also Europe, delivering lectures on his ideas. By now an elderly man, Velikovsky suffered from diabetes and intermittent depression, which according to his daughter may have been exacerbated 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 the projected sequels to Ages in Chaos) would ever see publication.
The last two years of his life finally saw publication of two volumes of the aforementioned Ages in Chaos series: Peoples of the Sea (1977) and Rameses II and his Time (1978). Velikovsky died, tended by his wife, at his Princeton home on November 17, 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 up to 1955.
For many years Velikovsky's estate was controlled by his two daughters, Shulamit Velikovsky Kogan (b. 1925), and Ruth Ruhama Velikovsky Sharon (b. 1926), who generally resisted the publication of any further material. (Exceptions include the biography ABA — the Glory and the Torment: The Life of Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky, issued in 1995 and greeted with rather dubious reviews; and a Hebrew translation of another Ages in Chaos volume, The Dark Age of Greece, was published in Israel.) A volume of Velikovsky's discussions and correspondence with Albert Einstein appeared in Hebrew in Israel, translated and edited by his daughter Shulamit Velikovsky Kogan. In the late 1990s, a large portion of Velikovsky's unpublished book manuscripts, essays and correspondence became available at the Velikovsky Archive website. In 2005, Velikovsky's daughter Ruth Sharon presented his entire archive to Princeton University Library.
Notwithstanding Velikovsky's dozen or so publications in medical and psychoanalytic journals in the 1920s and 1930s, the work for which he became well 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).
Rather than have his ideas dismissed wholesale because of potential flaws in any one area, 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 to Velikovsky there appeared to be insufficient correlation in the written or archeological records between Biblical history and what was known of the history of the area, particularly 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 catastrophe. 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:
Some of Velikovsky's specific postulated catastrophes included:
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, expand and lecture upon the details of his ideas, he released only selected portions of his work to the public in book form:
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.
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 astronomers and physicists from its first presentation. However, other Velikovskian enthusiasts such as Ralph Juergens and Earl Milton have embraced and developed these themes to propose a scenario where stars are lit not by internal nuclear fusion, but as the anode foci of galactic-scale electrical discharge currents. Such ideas do not find support in the conventional literature.
Velikovsky's ideas have been almost entirely rejected by mainstream academia (often vociferously so) and his work is generally regarded as erroneous in all its detailed conclusions. Moreover, scholars view his unorthodox methodology (for example, using comparative mythology to derive scenarios in celestial mechanics) as an unacceptable way to arrive at conclusions. Stephen Jay Gould offers a synopsis of the mainstream response to Velikovsky, writing, "Velikovsky is neither crank nor charlatan — although to state my opinion and to quote one of my colleagues, he is at least gloriously wrong ... Velikovsky would rebuild the science of celestial mechanics to save the literal accuracy of ancient legends."
There has also been more limited criticism from his followers. For example, Peter James and his associates (Centuries of Darkness) believe it is necessary to lower the conventional Egyptian dates by about 300 years whereas Velikovsky himself would have lowered them by about 600 years, in general.
Velikovsky's bestselling and consequently most-criticized book is Worlds in Collision. Astronomer Harlow Shapley, along with others such as Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, were highly critical of Macmillan's decision to publish the work. The fundamental criticism against this book from the astronomy community was that its celestial mechanics were physically impossible, requiring planetary orbits which do not conform with the laws of conservation of energy and conservation of angular momentum.
Velikovsky tried to protect himself from criticism of his celestial mechanics by removing the original Appendix on the subject from Worlds in Collision, hoping that the merit of his ideas would be evaluated on the basis of his comparative mythology and use of literary sources alone. However this strategy did not protect him: the appendix was an expanded version of the Cosmos Without Gravitation monograph, which he had already distributed to Shapley and others in the late 1940s – and they had regarded the physics within it as absurd.
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 session to Velikovsky, featuring (among others) Velikovsky himself and Professor 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). His criticisms are available in Scientists Confront Velikovsky and as a corrected and revised version in the book Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science. Sagan's arguments were aimed at a popular audience and he did not bother to remain to debate Velikovsky in person, facts that were used by Velikovsky's followers to attempt to discredit his analysis. Sagan rebutted these charges, and further attacked Velikovsky's ideas in his PBS television series Cosmos, though not without reprimanding scientists who attempted to suppress Velikovsky's ideas.
It was not until the 1980s that a very detailed critique of Worlds in Collision was made in terms of its use of mythical and literary sources, when Bob Forrest published a highly critical examination of them (see below). Earlier in 1974, James Fitton published a brief critique of Velikovsky's interpretation of myth that was ignored by Velikovsky and his defenders whose indictment began: "In at least three important ways Velikovsky's use of mythology is unsound. The first of these is his proclivity to treat all myths as having independent value; the second is the tendency to treat only such material as is consistent with his thesis; and the third is his very unsystematic method." 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.
More recently, the absence of supporting material in ice-core studies (such as the Greenland Dye-3 and Vostok cores) have removed any basis for the proposition of a global catastrophe of the proposed dimension within the later Holocene period.
Velikovsky's "Revised chronology" has been rejected by nearly all mainstream historians and Egyptologists. It was claimed that Velikovsky's usage of material for proof is often very selective. In 1965 the leading cuneiformist Abraham Sachs, in a forum at Brown University, criticised Velikovsky's use of Mesopotamian cuneiform sources. Velikovsky was never able to refute Sachs' attack.
In 1978, following the much-postponed publication of further volumes in Velikovsky's Ages in Chaos series, the UK's Society for Interdisciplinary Studies organised a conference in Glasgow specifically to debate the revised chronology. The ultimate conclusion of this work, by names including Peter James, John Bimson, Geoffrey Gammonn, and David Rohl, was that the Revised Chronology was untenable. Specifically, Michael Jones contended that it was impossible to separate the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasties by centuries as Velikovsky proposed, presenting evidence from genealogies of construction workers which spanned the three dynasties contiguously. However, inspired by Velikovky's original premise that the Manethian chronology of Egypt was flawed, James, Rohl and several other authors have gone on to publish their more conservative chronological revisions, which have also failed to find any acceptance in the mainstream academic community. Historian Emmett Sweeney has published works supporting the Revised Chronology, but these, too, have not found mainstream acceptance.
Such was the hostility directed against Velikovsky from some quarters (particularly the original campaign led by Harlow Shapley), that some commentators have made an analysis of the conflict itself. The most prominent of these was a study by American Behavioral Scientist magazine, eventually published in book form as The Velikovsky Affair. This framed the discussion in terms of how academic disciplines reacted to ideas from workers from outside their field, claiming that there was an academic aversion to permitting people to cross inter-disciplinary boundaries. More recently, James Gilbert, professor of history at University of Maryland, challenged this traditional version with a more nuanced account which focused on the intellectual rivalry between Velikovsky's ally Horace Kallen and Harlow Shapley. Earlier, Henry Bauer challenged the traditional view that the Velikovsky Affair illustrated the resistance of scientists to new ideas by pointing out "the nature and validity of Velikovsky's claims must be considered before one decides that the Affair can illuminate the reception of new ideas in science ..."
The scientific press generally denied Velikovsky a forum to rebut his critics. Velikovsky claimed that this made him a "suppressed genius", and he likened himself to Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake for preaching heliocentrism.
The storm of controversy created by Velikovsky's publications may have helped revive the catastrophist movement in the second half of the 20th century; however 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.
Published by Doubleday:
Published by William Morrow: