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Some Facts Regarding The Temple Of The Bearded Man At Chichen Itza

by Paul Goldberg

Some Facts Regarding the Temple of the Bearded Man At Chichen Itza.

By Lester Tell[1]

At one end of the Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza is the North Temple, also known as the Temple of the Bearded Man. On the back wall of this structure is a portrayal of a tall, fair-skinned, bearded figure that differs from the typical portrayal of Mayan warriors and priests. Through the years there has been speculation as to the origin and meaning of this image. It is known that the priests portrayed here are associated with the feathered serpent Kukulkan.[2]

E.H. Thompson[3] attributed the figure to a legendary Toltec chieftain who conquered the Yucatan. He was said to have been fair-skinned and bearded. His symbol was the feathered serpent. Other stories have come down through the years that spoke of visitations by fair-skinned bearded divinities.

We have come into possession of a document that suggests another possible explanation for the image at the North Temple. This document is comprised of fragments of a letter written by an obscure Kabbalist, Jacob Levi of Burgos, Spain. Jacob Levi was known later in life as Jacob the Blind.

Little has come down to us regarding Jacob Levi. He was born in 1098 in Leon; the date of his death is unknown. His name has been associated with Abraham Abulafia, a proponent of ecstatic Kabbalah. From descriptions found in the small amount of extant writing available, it appears that Jacob Levi was able to enter a mystical state by the contemplation of various combinations of Hebrew letters while exercising control of the breathing. This trance-like state was believed to result in one’s soul leaving the body with the ability to undertake a journey.

Jacob developed a small circle of followers, one of whom was Avner of Burgos. Avner was considered to be a Neo-Platonist. As is seen in much Neoplatonic writing, he speaks of reality as being generated by a series of emanations from the godhead. The Sephiroth—the Kabbalistic term for these emanations—were frequently imagined as taking the shape of a tree.[4] In Avner’s one surviving piece of writing there is the following reference to his teacher, Jacob the Blind:[5]

“Towards the end of his life, after the blindness overtook him, the master would speak of souls of the righteous taking flight and attaching to the tree.[6] As Jacob Levi, blessed be his name, spoke these words he would be overcome with ecstasy and wonder.”

Some theosophic aspects of Avner’s thought regarding the nature of the Sephirot appear to have been taken up by the Zohar, but the ecstatic aspects which Avner received from Jacob Levi were forgotten.

Jacob Levi most likely wrote the above-mentioned letter around 1130 C.E.[7] The contents illuminated some of Avner of Burgos’s comments regarding his master. It unexpectedly added another possibility as to the origins of the Bearded Man image on the North Temple at Chichen Itza.

Below are the salient parts of the material:

“In the year 4890 in the month of Elul with the help of the Holy One, may His Name be exalted, while contemplating the sacred letters in a certain way with the breath, I accomplished what I had long hoped for. My soul was separated from my body and I flew through the heavens as if in a chariot and visited a peculiar country. It was hot and steamy; overrun with greenery. In the city of this wondrous place was a pyramid such as existed in the land of Egypt from whence our Teacher Moses, blessed be his name, brought us forth.”

He goes on to describe his time in Chichen Itza where he encounters Kukulkan, the feathered serpent whom he associates with Samael, the serpent in the Garden of Eden:[8] 

“I sojourned there for 40 days and came to know the priests of the people of the city of that pyramid and saw many things, some wondrous, some evil. The city is large, filled with myriads of buildings and temples. Like the Moabites, the people engage in idol worship. There is a feathered serpent who flies through the air like Samael who descended into the Garden of Eden [may the Holy Name protect us from evil]. There are sacrifices made on an altar at the top of the pyramid and in a body of water. Heaven forbid that the words to describe the horror of these sacrifices should pass my lips.”

Presumably, Rabbi Jacob is referring here to human sacrifice which was known to have occurred both in a chamber in the pyramid [El Castillo] at Chichen Itza and in the ‘sacred cenote’.[9]

“We sat under the heavens and the priest told me that the bright band of stars across the night sky that we say is the river of fire from Daniel’s dream[10] was to them a tree where the world began. From this tree came forth all things that men know. When I heard these words, I looked up and saw the heavenly lights glittering with color. They began to swirl and dance and then there came into being a magnificent tree which we know to be the Sephiroth—the divine emanations of that which is beyond thought and words. This I saw with my own eyes.”

Jacob the Blind’s vision of the night sky is a representation of the Sephiroth as a tree. This is, as noted, a commonly occurring motif in Kabbalistic material. On the back wall of the temple is a representation of an elaborate tree said to be the Mayan version of the axis mundi—the ‘world tree’. Some Mesoamerican scholars believe the Milky Way, when in vertical position, was thought by the Mayans to be this ‘world tree’.[11]

The images inscribed on the temple wall are believed to portray a narrative of the ascension of the rulers of the city.[12] If Jacob Levi did indeed encounter the priests and inhabitants of Chichen Itza, the occasion of his visit might well be memorialized as the bearded man pictured on the wall of the North Temple.

The events related above, had they occurred, indicate a contact between Spain and the New World several hundred years before the era of the Conquistadores. Such events might also imply a Judeo-Mayan connection heretofore unrecognized.

[1] From The Modern Antiquarian: 49, pp. 140-144 [1994]. This communication was published by Dr. Tell in what was apparently the final issue of this journal. [P.E.G.].

[2] The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.

[3] Journal of American Antiquities Society; October 1933

[4] See e.g. Sholem, G: Kabbalah, Keter Pub. House, Jerusalem, 1974.

[5] MS 127: Rider University Library.

[6] See Sefer Bahir 119 where similar language can be found

[7] Tell, L: Modern Antiquarian; 43; 1989, pp. 34-50.

[8] He [i.e. Samael] flies through the air [Targum to the book of Job]: The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.

[9] For example see J. Eric S. Thompson: Maya History and Religion, 1970; University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, Oklahoma.  A cenote is a naturally formed sinkhole found in abundance in the Yucatan. Human remains and other sacrificial objects have been recovered from the ‘Sacred Cenote’ at Chichen Itza. Note: J. Eric S. Thompson is not to be confused with E. H. Thompson—see above. Both men were noted Mayan Scholars.

[10] Daniel 7:10 i.e. the Milky Way.

[11] Freidel, Schele, Parker: The Maya Cosmos. 1993; Quill, William Morrow. NY.

[12] Ibid. Freidel, Schele, Parker.



Paul Goldberg is a practicing physician near Philadelphia (United States). He has a long time interest in the commonalities between myth and religion. He would like to explore how speculative fiction might work well when intentionally based on myth. This is his first publication.

The Future God

by Brett Abrahamsen

I have 80,560 children. Most of them live on colonies on Mars, or in underground tunnels.

I have spent most of my life hooked up to reproductive devices. The purpose of these devices was to get as much sperm from the objects they were hooked up to as they possibly could.

The Dictator of Mars declared that anyone who removed themselves from their reproductive devices would face capital punishment – an order which produced children at alarming rates. Sometimes, there was so much consciousness that one person experienced two people’s thoughts at the same time. There was enough consciousness that no one could really tell whom it belonged to anymore.

What did the Dictator of Mars do with all of his subjects? He started a religion.

He called his religion the Holy Church of the Religion that Hasn’t Been Founded Yet. He explained his reasoning as follows: religions were constantly dying out and being replaced with better ones. Hence, it was obvious that in the future, a religion would be invented that was better than any religion that existed in the present.

He declared The Holy Church of the Religion that Hasn’t Been Founded Yet as the official state religion, the 100% truthful religion of the future. It was obvious that at some point a religion would be invented that was 100% theologically correct, even if it would take millions of years – and even if there were many more imperfect future religions (though getting progressively closer to perfection) yet to be invented.

It was also important to note the existence, or the lack thereof, of an afterlife. If there is no afterlife, to everyone who isn’t alive it will seem to them as if the universe never existed at all. All of the good fortune that caused them to be alive would seem not to matter.

The truth was this: the thing that happens after you die can be described as a burning sensation. However, no one knows whether this burning is the result of a very sadistic god, or the result of the process of death distorting the remnants of consciousness, so as to create a burning sensation.

Of course, this was the most theologically accurate piece of information in the entire Bible. However, everyone felt it – Christians and non-Christians.

The promise of eternal burning did not prevent anyone from believing in the Holy Church of the Religion that Hasn’t Been Founded Yet, since everyone – as is always the case with religion – wanted to believe in the Absolute Truth, not in what was convenient or pleasant.

At church meetings, children played games, and guessed at what the exciting Future Religion might be. “The truth”, said the Dictator of Mars.

One of the games looked like a particle simulation. The Dictator of Mars told us that if we tried very hard, we could simulate how the first particles came to exist in the universe, from seeming nothingness.

“I still don’t get it”, I said.

“By trying very hard – that is how the first particles came to exist”, the Dictator of Mars said.

One of the ironies concerning the Holy Church of the Religion that Hasn’t Been Founded Yet was that the discovery of any kind of truth would end the religion entirely. There wouldn’t be any more future truths to believe in.

The universal symbol of the Holy Church of the Religion that Hasn’t Been Founded Yet was this:


It was a sacred symbol. People placed it on the bumpers of their mini-cars. The fertilization wards were inscribed with it, too.

The universal symbol of sacrilege and blasphemy was the symbol of certainty, of closure. The symbol was this:


Another thing we used to think about was: who the discoverer of this future truth might be. We had to pray to this person, even though we didn’t know who they were yet.

The adherents of the Holy Church of the Religion that Hasn’t Been Founded Yet weren’t sure at all. They knew that any kind of certainty would most likely make them wrong, like all the past religions had been.

It should be noted that theology was very important to the Dictator of Mars. If there was no God, the Dictator of Mars was the most powerful thing in the whole universe. If there was a God, the Dictator’s power was close to irrelevant.

The Dictator of Mars did not like this. He said, “It is now the future, and I have discovered the truth”. And he started the Holy Church of the Religion that Has Now Been Founded.



Brett Abrahamsen resides in Saratoga Springs, NY, and has written a number of speculative fiction stories. His favorite topics include alternate histories, philosophy, and evolution. He prefers the flash fiction medium, at under 2000 words.

Faith in the Future, or, Does Religion Have a Place in Science Fiction?

by Jim Clarke

I write this while in lockdown due to the global Coronavirus pandemic, amusing myself by reading Dune and Nnedi Okorafor. Perhaps, when you read this, the lockdowns will have been lifted. This period, stuck at home and making the most of it by catching up on reading what I like, reminds me of being a doctoral student at Trinity College Dublin. What would any sensible person do, if they had access to a copyright library holding millions of volumes, and most of their thesis written? Obviously, borrow and read as many SF novels as possible!

No more than people today can foresee how the world will look or function post-Corona, I had no idea where my policy of bulk-reading science fiction would lead. The human mind is probably the world’s greatest ever pattern recognition system, and I got tripped up when I noticed, in about the third novel in a row, that the protagonist (or antagonist, very often) was a Catholic priest, specifically a Jesuit.

In novel after novel, I found priests in space. Priests converting aliens. Priests condemning aliens. Priests who were scientists and priests who were bitterly opposed to science. There were robot popes. There were alternate histories where the Reformation never happened and the Vatican ruled supreme over the globe. Sometimes they even dominated the entire galaxy. A kernel of an idea formed. Perhaps there might be an academic curio in this, a novelty paper about the prevalence of Jesuits in space, or more broadly on the relationship between SF and Catholicism? I vowed to explore further. I borrowed some more novels. Over seven years later, I published my findings: Science Fiction and Catholicism: The Rise and Fall of the Robot Papacy (Gylphi, 2019).

What began as a side-project, a thin veil of legitimacy to justify reading hundreds of SF novels, had spiralled into a 100,000 word monograph. And even that was highly selective. It could have been three times as long. What surprised me during those years was that almost no one had written about this. Or to put it another way, my own pattern recognition wasn’t astonishing, but the fact that apparently so few other scholars had spotted the pattern was.

There is, of course, a reason for this. Unlike SF writers, who habitually incorporate the existence of religion into their work, SF scholars are often extremely antipathetic. For some, immersed in a tradition of Marxism, SF by definition must be kept pure from the taint of religion, a kind of exercise in Enlightenment values, narrowly defined. Those values are perhaps best expressed by British journalist Francis Wheen in his excellent book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. Wheen’s theme is that the values of the Enlightenment are in retreat in the modern era. He defines those values as “an insistence on intellectual autonomy, a rejection of tradition and authority as the infallible sources of truth, a loathing for bigotry and persecution, a commitment to free inquiry, a belief that (in Francis Bacon’s words) knowledge is indeed power”.

These are of course fine values, indeed firmly intertwined with the Enlightenment period. But concomitant with them, in some eyes anyway, is the idea that they are antipathetical to religion in almost all forms. God, it seems, is unreasonable, and faith in God or Gods all the more so. The perception, however, that the main thinkers of the Enlightenment were atheist is somewhat erroneous. D’Holbach and Diderot certainly were and proudly so. It becomes fuzzier when people ascribe atheism to philosophers like David Hume or Spinoza, however. Both, after all, vigorously defended themselves against the accusation. However, there is a broad perspective, running from the Enlightenment period, or indeed even earlier, through to the critics of contemporary and recent SF, that the Enlightenment and religion are diametrically opposed, because they utilise different methods to pursue similar aims.

In this sense, Enlightenment values such as free inquiry are apparently not possible if an ancient text defines the parameters of research, and there is little point in pursuing knowledge if it has already been delivered in revelatory form. As James McGrath has acknowledged, “Both religion and science fiction tell stories that reflect on the place of human beings in the universe, good vs. evil, humanity’s future, and at times about the very nature of existence itself.” In proposing answers derived from revelation, religion relies upon transcendental authority, whereas science proposes provisional answers derived from the scientific method of observation, investigation, experimentation and analysis.

As a result, religion can be cast as antipathetic to knowledge, and hence to scientific inquiry, and ultimately to SF, the literary form which pursues ideas and which predicates itself on the propagation of science and the emulation of the scientific method in its production. This position is well summarised by the critic Paul Kincaid: “If we recognize SF as a literature forged in the rationalist revolution of the Renaissance and tempered in the secularist revolution of the enlightenment, then … as religion becomes a major issue in the world … a literature espousing rationalism and secularism seems more and more out of step with the world.”

What I’d like to question is whether that is indeed the only way to recognise SF? Certainly it seems to be the dominant way that critics have recognised it. Farah Mendelsohn, in a rare instance of a critic acknowledging religion in SF, notes that “SF is full of stories in which superstition is defeated by explanation; the immaterial is tamed by manifestation.” If religion must appear in SF, it must do so in order to be a whipping boy, a straw man opponent against the march of rationalist progress, as it does in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. But this is not the entirety of SF by any means.

For sure, a lot of SF authors have indeed been ardent atheists, or at the least, tended to show a greater faith in science than in any revelatory belief system. H.G. Wells loudly proclaimed his atheism and socialism to anyone who would listen, and this can easily be detected in the forms of utopia he expressed in his less interesting novels. In America, the maturing pulp tradition under the editorial eye of firstly Hugo Gernsback and later John Campbell firmly located the stories they fostered in a milieu that envisioned technological answers to all of humanity’s problems. The atom bomb blew a sizeable hole in this vision, no less than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it was decades later, with the advent of JG Ballard and the New Wave, before SF finally adopted a less than cheerleading position on scientific development.

SF came to prominence as a popular literary genre in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries alongside the rise of professional science, and insofar that it too sought to speculate about ontological possibilities and often featured scientific development and a positive attitude to mechanism and technology in its content, SF allied itself closely to science in any developing cultural arguments. In a culture slowly emerging from the legacy of Christian hegemony, SF came to associate itself with a progressivist, even radical, perception that science could and would supplant religion as the guiding societal and cultural ontology. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), this stance is illustrated by the alien overlord Karellen’s dismissive speech about the religious Wainwright:

“You will find men like him in all the world’s religions. They know that we represent reason and science, and, however confident they may be in their beliefs, they fear that we will overthrow their gods. Not necessarily through any deliberate act, but in a subtler fashion. Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets.”

Even the very title of Clarke’s novel suggests an arrogant progressivism; the scientific miracles offered by mankind’s alien mentors are, rather than simply swapping a faith in one higher power for another, presented as growing up out of a lengthy cultural adolescence that is defined at least in part by its religiosity. And yet, it is curious that in so many of Clarke’s novels, a certain transcendental mode is achieved which, though often argued away as a secular sense of wonder (or sensawunda), often specifically identifies Buddhism as exempt from its inherent antipathy to religion. Even Childhood’s End permits Buddhism to survive as a faith when all others fail in the face of the rational alien overlord. Buddhism too permeates The Fountains of Paradise, the 2001 cycle and many of his short stories too. We lose something important by reading Clarke solely through the prism of atheism. Not for nothing was he praised by the Dalai Lama and once accused of being a canny theologian by the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane.

But not all SF authors are as atheistic as Arthur. And even he, slyly, often referred to himself as pantheist or crypto-Buddhist. Leaving aside the whole welter of consciously religious SF, written by adherents of various faiths, there are reams of SF classics in which religious themes and the issue of faith are not present as mere whipping boys for atheism, but as a central motif and concern. To take three of the greatest mid-60s English language SF novels, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light may posit advanced humans playing at Gods via technology, but the religious milieu is foregrounded much more so than the techno-explanation. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land introduces the idea of an alien religion, a theme also explored by Philip José Farmer among others. And Frank Herbert’s Dune, the best-selling SF novel of all time, presents a Messiah, syncretically generated from a combination of Jesuitism, Arab Islam and the Zen Buddhism which Herbert himself followed.

One might have thought that these three novels, appearing within a few short years, might have put to bed the idea that SF was intrinsically incompatible with religion. But it seems that every generation must reconsider the carefully policed borderlines of SF. In 1974, Theodore Sturgeon was moved to write in justification of the presence of religion in SF: “religion and science fiction are no strangers to one another, and the willingness of science fiction writers to delve into it, to invent and extrapolate and regroup ideas and concepts in this as in all other areas of human growth and change, delights me and is the source of my true love for the mad breed.”

Sturgeon, writing nearly a decade after Dune, insisted that SF should accommodate what he called the “infrarational”, a supralogical mode which includes religion. The infrarational, he wrote, is “that source of belief, faith, and motive which exists beside and above reason. So conditioned have we been by Aristotle, Kant, and Freud that we tend to believe that any force, object, or problem will yield to rational processes; when they don’t, we blame the process and call up yet more logic. The infrarational, however, is a very large component in us, and while reason calls it ignorance and stupidity (viz, trying to talk someone out of a fear of the dark or of snakes), it is neither. It is the infrarational, source of many of our motivations and the tint reservoir of much of our thinking. We will never succeed in reaching our optimum as a species until we learn the nature of the infrarational. We may fail as a species unless we do.”

However, we may still be failing as a species. In late April, Nnedi Okorafor took to social media after reading one too many well-meaning tweets that praised her novel Lagoon: “I wake up to someone saying Lagoon is an ‘amazing fantasy story’. Whyyyyy is it so hard for people to say my name and science fiction?? What is that? “Unfamiliar cultures” does not equal fantasy. “Different spiritual worldview” does not equal fantasy. Check yourself. If the story has aliens in it invading Lagos, it’s science fiction. And that’s my TED Talk for today.” Does the presence of aliens alone designate SF? Even according to Marxist critic Darko Suvin, aliens would qualify as a novum, his defining characteristic of SF. Yet there appears to be confusion among Okorafor’s fans. This is, perhaps, understandable, since mainstream critics like Gary Wolfe and Alexandra Alter have firmly, and perhaps sloppily, located Okorafor within the fantasy genre. Clearly Okorafor, quite legitimately, sees herself as writing in both genres, or perhaps even across them.

Her earliest novel, The Shadow Speaker, is set in a post-apocalyptic future with alien planets, but also has a peace bomb made with magic, and features many religious references. Zahrah the Windseeker, which won the Wole Soyinka prize in 2008, features magical children who express some of the myths of West Africa. Who Fears Death, her first adult novel, won the 2011 World Fantasy Award and obtained nominations for the Locus and the Nebula, despite its post-apocalyptic setting. Again it features magic and African mythology strongly. Akata Witch, as the title suggests, again features a magical female child protagonist. It is arguable, therefore, that Lagoon’s appearance in 2014 was a paradigm shift of sorts for Okorafor, from fantasy to more science fictional material. Certainly, the Binti trilogy which followed, with its space travel, tentacled aliens and Hugo and Nebula awards, is indisputably SF.

She is hardly the first writer to move seamlessly between fantastical sub-genres, and she has recognised in the past that she writes on the borders of cultures, which perhaps inspires her ability to traverse those carefully-policed genre borders also. She told NPR in 2016: “That’s very much a part of my identity, and it’s also very much a reason why I think I ended up writing science fiction and fantasy because I live on these borders – and these borders that allow me to see from multiple perspectives and kind of take things in and then kind of process certain ideas and certain stories in a very unique way. And that has led me to write this strange fiction that I write, which really isn’t that strange if you really look at it through a sort of skewed lens.”

That skewed lens seems to be throwing some of her fans, who seem incapable of acknowledging a SF novel from an author who had previously delivered fantasy novels inspired by the mythology of her Nigerian heritage. However, they are in good company, no less purblind to the obvious than those critics who insist that religion is misplaced in SF. Perhaps the critics are the more culpable because theirs is a willing blindness to the necessity of the infrarational. It is a necessity that has been explored by Frank Herbert, and Nnedi Okorafor, and a myriad other SF writers. SF inflected not only by Catholicism, but by Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Islam, Judaism and any number of indigenous belief systems has existed for a very long time and continues to thrive today.

The origin myth of SF told by many of its critics is erroneous. The Enlightenment was mostly the product of religious minds, and was not antipathetic to religion, though religion was often antipathetic to it at times. The scientific method is a method for closing in on truth, not a faith-based belief system in itself as so often misunderstood. And insofar as SF emulates that method, it is not the in-house literature of ardent atheists, but of all future-focused readers interested in speculation and ideas.

It’s time for the logical fallacy to come to an end. SF is not only the legacy of HG Wells but also of CS Lewis. At its best, in novels like Dune or Lagoon, it embraces the infrarational which Sturgeon wrote about, the “different spiritual worldview” which some of Okorafor’s readers, and many SF critics, find uneasy. Yet religion is an inherent part of SF – not its totality, but far from something to be denied or excluded. It’s okay to have some faith in the future.



Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End, London: Ballantine, 1953.

Arthur C. Clarke, The Fountains of Paradise, London: Gollancz, 1979.

Jim Clarke, Science Fiction and Catholicism: The Rise and Fall of the Robot Papacy, Canterbury: Gylphi, 2019.

Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 1961.

Frank Herbert, Dune, Boston: Chilton Books, 1965.

Paul Kincaid, “Fiction since 1992”, in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, London: Routledge, 2003.

Farah Mendelsohn, “Religion and Science Fiction”, in Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, Eds. Edward James and Farah Mendelsohn, Cambridge: CUP, 2003.

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014.

Theodore Sturgeon, “Science Fiction, Morals, and Religion”, in Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow, Ed. Reginald Bretnor, New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Francis Wheen, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, London: Fourth Estate, 2004.

Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light, New York: Doubleday, 1967.



Jim Clarke is a Senior Lecturer in English and Journalism at Coventry University, where he teaches SF. He is the author of The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess (2017) and Science Fiction and Catholicism (2019). He has written on Anthony Burgess, JG Ballard, Iain M. Banks and many other SF authors, and is also co-investigator of the Ponying the Slovos project, which explores how invented literary languages function in translation and adaptation:

John XX

by Timons Esaias

The nearly complete suppression of Pope John XX from the pages of history is unparalleled in all the long, sad story of censorship. So thorough and so widespread has this suppression been, that it now seems impossible to guess, with any precision, how long he reigned, or, more surprisingly, even when.

[Encyclopaedists attempt to dismiss the matter by claiming that a clerical error in the Liber Pontificalis assigned two dates to John XIV, and thus confused some of the papal catalogues. Oddly, it did not confuse John XV, John XVI, John XVII, John XVIII or John XIX. We are asked to believe that the Vatican — which keeps such careful record of its papal names that it accepts the numbers claimed by antipopes — somehow lost count. This is absurd, no matter how often this lame excuse has been reprinted. It is an argument for the ignorant, a Sunday School cant. No serious scholar accepts it. -Ed.]

Some historians have conflated the missing John XX with the legend of Pope Joan: the woman who supposedly gave such extraordinary lectures at the University of Paris (all the while disguised as a man) that she was elevated to the papacy. Elevated to the papacy without being first a Cardinal, and by a unanimous vote of the College. Previously those who believed the Pope Joan story attempted to identify her with a certain John Anglicus, putative successor to Leo IV, but he is not listed in the catalogues either, and the name is probably just a piece of the same legend. Attempts have been made to tie her with other popes of known date (John XVII, Clement III) including, rather outrageously, Pius XI (in the 20th century!). Nonetheless, it is tempting indeed to conflate one unlisted pope with the other, especially when the names Joan and John are gender versions of each other.

Increasing the allure of this hypothesis that she was John XX is that the story of Pope Joan is first recorded in the 1240s. This creates a space of two centuries after the death of John XIX (in 1032) into which to insert this elusive reign, which is said to have ended in childbirth, exposure and violent death.

While this period most likely does enclose the suppressed reign of John XX, recent archeology reveals that “Pope Joan” is an updating of a legend from pre-Republican Rome. It seems that a woman infiltrated the office of pontifex maximus, a religious desecration so heinous that its discovery would require the immediate execution of the defiler, just as modern legend preserves.

Scholarship having thus deprived us of this easy solution to the problem, and endless hours of research among all the chronicles of medieval Christendom having uncovered as yet no clear candidate for the missing prelate, it would be beneficial, some think, to examine this question from the other end. From the cause.

What would lead the Church to utterly eradicate the name of one of its leaders from history?

History records many attempts to expunge certain figures from memory. Akhenaton attempted to replace the names of all the gods with that of Aten, and in his turn had his name chiseled out of monuments by his angry polytheistic successors. But neither attempt was sufficiently thorough. We still know the names of Akhenaton and the gods that ruled the earth before his birth.

King Arthur of Britain suffered considerable suppression by the Church, and his name is found in none of the chronicles preserved by monks. In Gildas, for instance, his battles are described and his government discussed, but it is as if the ruler of the Britons had no name. It is from Welsh poems that we know the name of Ambrosius’s successor, and from some Saint’s Lives that suggest the cause of the suppression of his name. In these tales Arthur is the bad guy, trying to extract taxes from the Church. In retribution, the Church moved to make his very name vanish. Again, however, they failed. We know Arthur’s name, and battles, and rough dates.

In the most recent century we have again seen this impulse to censorship in action, but despite the best efforts of the Soviet Encyclopedists, we still know the name of Beria, and that of Trotsky, and all the other original revolutionaries whom later leaders sought to outshine.

In these, and many other such cases — despite the best efforts of those who sought to erase — we know the names. Just as we know the names of many anti-popes through the ages, no matter how heretical or fraudulent or evil their rival rule.

But of John the Twentieth we have nothing, nothing but a blank in the papal lists, a missing designation between John XIX and John XXI. This suggests that his crime, if crime it was, must have been worse than mere political rivalry; worse than attempted taxation; worse than doctrinal originality; worse than heresy; and far, far worse than being a woman.

There are three main schools of thought on this issue, but all agree that whatever the cause of this suppression, John XX’s time on the papal throne must have been short. A reign of years, perhaps even of months, would have left traces even the most conscientious pursuer would not have found. Communications in those days were simply not reliable enough to enforce an order to suppress a name, and Church and royal rule was insufficiently rigorous for such a task. We would be more likely to find copies of the order to suppress the name than to find the name’s complete absence.

The primary theory (called the Berne Conjecture, after the location of its original proponents) is that Pope John XX was discovered to be worse than a mere heretic. Had he been a secret Jew or Muslim, however, this would have provided the Church an excuse for burnings, exiles, or new Crusades; none of which it shrank from using in this period. A practitioner of the Black Arts, or an alchemist, on the other hand, might have been a greater problem. In the mind of the public a woman, or a Jew, or a heretic might become Pope through deception. While deplorable, it casts no clear stain upon the office; and in those days before the Pope became infallible the fallibility of the College of Cardinals might be sensitive but it was not crucial.

But the first thought one has when hearing that the Pope was an alchemist or sorcerer is different. One is inclined to leap to the conclusion that it was special powers that brought him to the office. And this, goes the line of reasoning, threatens the office itself by implying the supremacy of magic over religion. Just as Peter gave short shrift to Simon Magus, so might the protectors of his throne to a magician successor.

Another theory, objected to as somewhat fanciful by sober theological historians, has nonetheless gained currency among Charismatics and Sanctificationists. Regarded as “New Age” by some critics, and as derivative of Dostoevsky by others, it predates both. A Dutch follower of Swedenborg, one Luther Diogenes Kuyptmann, wrote a short commentary on his master’s Arcana Coelestia in which he contended, in a brief footnote written in awkwardly phrased modern Latin, that John XX had been a heavenly angel. This angel, Kuyptmann asserts, lasted less than a day as Pope. Having declared it his purpose to divest the Church of both its property and temporal power, he was immediately dispatched (how one dispatches an angel is not made clear) by an outraged Curia.

Though the source of this story is unclear, and many attribute it to an unrecorded vision of Swedenborg, it has proven surprisingly resilient over the years. At least three separate scholars have visited the Vatican Archives in the last decade in an attempt to find corroboration; and there was a report in the 1950s that the KGB had found proof of the matter in a Russian Orthodox library, but nothing of this has surfaced in the post-Soviet era.

Those who have given serious consideration to this claim argue that the Church could easily have insisted that the angelic impostor was in fact a demon, and dispensed with the need for suppression. A similar argument can be applied to the last contending theory, except that in this case, unlike that of the reputed angel, there might have been awkward physical evidence to deal with. Evidence that might still reside in the bowels of Paris.

The hints upon which this third conjecture were first based are to be found in certain odd passages in both the Summa Theologiae and the Summa contra Gentiles of St. Thomas Aquinas. Amidst the discussions of such questions as How many angels can stand on the head of a pin?, or In the same place?, and Whether they have corporal bodies? are scattered several surprisingly modern inquiries. Aquinas asked whether “Intelligences live among the celestial spheres?” and “Can those in the upper air move from place to place without the passage of time?” and, rather intriguingly “Can the bodies of those who live among the fires of the upper air be burned while alive?”

Theologians over the years have tended to neglect these passages as of minor relevance, and a search of the standard database reveals no doctoral theses on these items, or any published paper in the last two hundred years. My own copy of Aquinas has a rather lame footnote suggesting that some of Marco Polo’s stories had raised questions about flying people and other fabulous types of humans and demons, hence these odd interludes.

Aquinas (1225-1274) lived in the last part of the period in which John XX can be assumed to have ruled, dying just two years before the investiture of John XXI. Just as his questions concerning angelic messengers remind the modern reader of a discussion of photons (no mass, instantaneous travel), so these questions make the modern reader think of extra-planetary aliens.

And if a true non-human from the sky was discovered in the papacy, this might give rise to a reaction of secrecy and suppression. This might especially be so if the problem was ongoing, even after the alien pope had been replaced.

Specifically, the question about a creature from the sky having a body that can’t burn while alive has encouraged a few thinkers to imagine that an auto-de-fé of the offending prelate had in fact been attempted. And failed.

One need look no further than the Vatican’s own art collection to find possible supporting evidence for this. A number of anonymous works, all dating from after 1180, as well as the works of known painters (3 Titians and 2 Botticellis, and a Theotokopoulos among them) right into the Renaissance contain an iconographic character, always in the background, known in art circles as The Chained Figure. His body is hulking, despondent, and his head usually shrouded, helmeted or hidden in shadow. He has typically been referred to as a symbol of sinners not yet redeemed by Christ, but there is no predecessor for such an image before the late 12th century, and it entirely disappears from Catholic art simultaneously with the shameful treaty of Pisa in 1664, in which the Pope surrendered abjectly to the demands of Louis XIV.

This is the precise time that the famous Man in the Iron Mask appears in French documents, imprisoned at Pignerol. This prisoner would die in the Bastille in 1703 and be buried (not traditionally cremated) in great secrecy.

Could Aquinas, the supporters of this Contact Conjecture ask, have been discussing a very specific case, one known to him personally? And could a man from the sky have somehow been made Pope, been discovered, dethroned, expunged from history, unsuccessfully burned at the stake, imprisoned, and have lived perhaps another 500 years?            

But that would be, as Montaigne used to say, altogether too fantastical.



Timons Esaias is a satirist, poet, essayist and short fictionator. His works have appeared in twenty languages. He won the Asimov’s Readers Award and the Louis Award for poetry and was a finalist for the BSFA. He teaches in the Seton Hill University MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. He reads more than is probably good for him, sometimes in languages that have long ago died. Interests include chess, aikido, maritime history and military history. He spends entirely too much time inspecting coastal fortifications. People who know him are not surprised to learn that he lived in a museum for eight years.


by E. E. King

The Sila lived on a planet of stone. They were round, soft, slightly opaque and formed from silicon. They would have been transparent had they been thinner. Like blobs of jelly, they had no eyes, ears, mouths, noses or appendages. They had no senses, nor did they need them. They lived at a pace so slow they could comprehend that time and space were relative. On their planet, the speed of light was relative too. There were no constants. The only constant, unchanging unchangeables, were the rocks and the Sila themselves. They did not breathe or die. They had no emotions, no hungers, no need to reproduce, or desire for love. They communicated directly, without the need for words, faster than light or sound.

They sent their thoughts out into their galaxy, traversing space, distance and time. Life was, of course, fairly common in the universe, how could it not be? Uncountable galaxies filled with clouds of stars and planets. The life was mostly carbon based: small-minded, ignorant, finite creatures. Creatures who saw little and understood less. Creatures who trusted their limited senses and themselves alone in the vastness of space. The Sila found no reason to disabuse them. These creatures had nothing to teach them.

On all the planets, in all the galaxies in all the universes similarity abounded. There was nothing new under the suns… not even sun. But water, in its liquid state, unfrozen and not gaseous, was rare. So, there was interest when the Sila, probing far, far into the distant lights of the sky found a planet that was 98% saltwater.

Probing beneath its surface, they discovered a huge variety of life, an almost overwhelming multiplicity of species.

A few were free floating, looking like Sila themselves, though they were carbon based. Many lived in colonies, individuals sharing a common skeleton. They had no brains. A loose network of nerves detected light, odor and touch. Each had long, waving, poisonous tentacles. Probing into their calcium depths, the Sila discovered minute organism in each that could turn light into sugar. These tiny alchemists fed their own skeletons with food made from light. 

Deeper still, from the dark water rose the bleached remains of older colonies, some were shaped like brains, others like plates, or horns. These too had once been living, but due to temperature, salinity, or depth, they had died and lay white and silent beneath the waves.

There were other ruins too. Some younger, some older, vast towering made of glass, steel and stone. In them, the Sila found no life.

The Sila believed in light, in time, space, rock and chemicals. They believed in thought and ideas. They believed in communication. They did not believe in spirit or in soul. Souls were the inventions of carbon-based life, created to still the terror of an endless sleep, and to calm the fears of an infinite night.

Then they found them. Beings like themselves, round, pliant, opaque and still, lacking all traces of animation. How could this be? They were obviously not rocks. The Sila had seen too many stones on too many planets to be confused. These were Sila, but devoid of intellect, without life – dead.

They lay, two each, inside of six-foot rectangular squares that had been hewed in the ground many millions of years ago. Some were encased in fragments of metamorphic rock, some surrounded by molecules of rotted cellulose. They sat like soft, large eggs, placed symmetrically inside a curious construction of calcium which reeked of long dead carbon. How had they gotten here, buried beneath Water and Earth? What had happened to them?

The Sila were infinite, and yet, here was death, come to their kind on a planet in a galaxy far, far away. The Sila’s minds were invaded by that first ambassador of emotion; curiosity. It was like a finger pulling aside a curtain, letting in the first small beam of light, and as a shadow follows light, it was followed by a glimmering of fear.

The Sila shivered first collectively, then individually. If death was inevitable, each wanted a soul for itself, an afterlife, a heaven. And so, the Sila separated. Their expansive minds condensed. Their society collapsed. Yet it could have been so easily avoided, if only they had understood the words on the underside of the dead Sila; Best Breasts Allegan Brand.



E.E. King is a painter, performer, writer, and biologist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. King has won various awards and fellowships for art, writing, and environmental research. She’s been published widely, most recently in Clarksworld, Flame Tree, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores and On Spec. One of her tales is on Tangent’s recommended readings in 2019. Her books include Dirk Quigby’s Guide to the Afterlife, Electric Detective, and Blood Prism.