Heribert Illig’s Theory of Invented Time

How could I have written a whole book about conspiracy theories without once encountering Heribert Illig? I just stumbled over a reference to his “phantom time hypothesis” and now I’m finding him everywhere.

A prolific crank in the grand tradition of Ignatius L. Donnelley and Immanuel Velikovsky, Illig has spent many years elaborating and defending his proposition that the years 614-911 CE were invented and inserted into histories ex post facto at the behest of Otto III. The present year is not 2010, but 1713; Charlemagne and Alfred the Great were fictional characters; the Viking raids never happened; etc.

Illig’s foundation for his theory are the presumed inconsistencies between the Gregorian and Julian calendars (which are in fact easily resolved); he criticizes historians’ over-credulous attitude toward written documents and points out inadequacies in dendrochronology and archaeological methods.

None of his books have been translated into English, though amusingly auto-translated reviews and summaries of some of them can be found here (“the book pleases me because of its detailedness; at the same time I recommend to bring along however a due portion of patience for everyone when completing”). From what I can gather, Illig has collaborators and defenders and apparently enjoys a significant following.

Though I hesitate to attack a writer that I haven’t encountered first hand, what stands out in both friendly and unfriendly descriptions of his books is how narrow and pedantic their focus is when it comes to evidence that supports their thesis, and yet how easily they dismiss the whole historical and archaeological consensus–not to mention thousands of years of astronomical observations–that contradict it. Illig assiduously points out the motes in establishment scholars’ eyes, in other words, while ignoring the planks in his own.

And he is, as this cogent criticism notes, almost absurdly Eurocentric:

For example, Mohammed either died in 614, a decade before he began dictating the Koran and 18 years before the history books say, or he lived until 929 A.D. I think we’d have spotted that already. The Phantom Time Interval completely encompasses the explosive growth of Islam. So one day it’s 614 and Mohammed is an obscure visionary trader in Arabia, the next it’s 911, and somehow Mohammed’s ideas have spread from the Atlantic to Central Asia. And Arabs have suddenly occupied Persia and Egypt, as well as Spain, and they’ve been in Spain for 200 years. They’ve also built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

The Phantom Time interval closely approximates the Tang Dynasty of China, a high point of Chinese culture and political power. So there’s a neat conspiratorial interpretation. The Tang Dynasty is an invention, a classic “golden age” myth. The only thing lacking is some explanation of how someone from medieval Europe convinced the Chinese to create a fake dynasty complete with bogus archives.

An articulate German student of American culture concedes that Illig’s thesis in some ways resembles conspiracy theory, but for that very reason urges the academy to receive him with an open mind. If Illig is right, he says, then everything we thought we knew is wrong. Scholarship would be revolutionized. “That’s why Illig matters,” he concludes. “That’s why he should be taken so seriously. He has posed a critical question which desperately deserves an answer.”

Unless of course it doesn’t.

19 thoughts on “Heribert Illig’s Theory of Invented Time

  1. I’m afraid you really ought to read Illig’s (and Uwe Topper’s) writings in German to follow all the argument.
    For instance, its is true that Islam can count backwards over 1600 years. However, as the coordination of calendars dates back to relatively modern times, all this suggests, according to Topper, is that the Gregorian date calculated for the foundation of Islam is wrong.
    In fact, if we subtract 297 years from AD 622, the date given for the Hagira in Christian chronology, we arrive at 325, the date of the Council of Nicea, one purpose of which was to determine the divinity or otherwise of Christ, i.e. to pronounce on the Arian “heresy”. Islam, as we know, rejects the divinity of Christ.
    I don’t want to go into a complex argument here, which covers such points as the Vandal invasion of North Africa in AD 429, but it does seem a coincidence.

  2. I came across this theory in a book I was editing and as the previous poster noted, I think the extract completely misses the point – according to Illig it’s a portion of European written history that has been fabricated, not world history. Thus there is no debate as to the existence of Tang China; what is being questioned is the current synchronization of the Gregorian calendar with other calendars. Not that I agree with his theory, but I did enjoy imagining it for a few minutes.

  3. It is what Chris says. For a couple of hours I was enthousiastic and read everything I could. Then I began to see the flaws in the theory. Like in so many conspiracy theories.

  4. You talk about “critical thinking” but how can you expect to be taken seriously when by your admission you have not read the research you so readily dismiss? It is pitiful how you use ridicule trying to appear intellectually superior. It does not work. In fact it just comes across as a sad attempt at hiding your inability to understand the topic and reasonably comment on it or offer an informed criticism. The sole reason and purpose of historiography is to continually question and critique historical records. Otherwise history is not a science, but only a repository of legends, myths created for propaganda reasons by those in power. Unfortunately, you seem to prefer not to think for yourself and would like others to do the same, while at the same time belittling those who have decades of serious research behind them. I have read four of the books on the subject so far (by Illig, Weissgerber, Topper) and find their past and ongoing research valuable and a worthy challenge to serious historians and historiographers. Your dismissal of it on the other hand carries no weight whatsoever.

    1. I just finished reading two of his books in German, Das Erfundene Mittelalter and Wer hat and der Uhr gedreht, and I would like to add some points. In the first books he shows that here in Europe, we have but sparse finds from the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries, which historians have always lamented, but never taken as a clue. He dismantles the myth that the chapel in Aachen was built in the time of Charlemagne, since, like most things ascribed to Charlemagne, there was no historical precedent, no historical follow up, and everything had to be invented anew in the 10th century. Moreover, historians blame the Vikings for demolishing Europe, such that all the flashy culture of Charlemagne disappeared. But they find no archeological evidence for the Vikings destroying all the towns that they should have. Most of his work is about comparing architectural and archeological finds to historical records, which do not match. Nor do the so-called certain records of solar and lunar eclipses, which show that they are not contemporary, but retroactively calculated. As for Islam, Heribert Illig holds indeed, as far as I could tell from the second book, that Mohammed’s time was contemporary with the Council of Nicea (325) and that it was the Persians who came to them, rather than them coming to the Persians, around 614. So skip from there to 911, or come up with a real find from the years in between , which Illig dares you, and I as a reader too, and then you see why the Byzantian empire is just as big as it was before, and the Ottonian empire just as big, except for Sachsen, as the Merovingian sphere of influence. As for the Tang Dynasty, he disagrees with a writer that thinks it is fictitious too, since we have so many finds from that era. So he assumes, in a line or two, that we may expect to find it to be contemporary to our 4 th to 8 th century, rather than to our 6 th to 10 th.

  5. Thank you for clarifying. Clearly the summaries I read underplayed the theory’s ingeniousness.

  6. There’s also the fact that the Library of Alexandria was totally destroyed forever. Twice. First by the Arians. And then 297 years later(during the phantom time) by the Muslims. In identical circumstances. Also, the whole idea of a small band of Arabs overruniing Persia, Iraq, Syria, Egypt etc. is ludicrous in the extreme. It is of note that most Muslim architecture etc. is in Syrian or iranian style, not Arabic. It is of note that the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire encompassed North Africa and the Middle east, a population of overwhelmingly Arian subjects. Who spoke a Semitic language. And the names “Arian”, “Moor” and “Muslim” are all European names given to these people, that they never took themselves. “The rise of Islam” is just a continuation of the older “Arian” movement. And it flows seamlessly with the phantom era(and the mythical embellishments) removed.

    As someone else noted the famous Hungarian Chronicle covers a period that supposedly lasted over 400 years, but, with precise detail, lists time of only 104 years. It has been treated as nonsense by an arrogant Hitorical Community, even though it was recorded at the time, not several hundred years after the event. The Phantom Time Hypothesis and The Hungarian Chronicle fit together perfectly. The idea that civilisation fell, three hundred years passed leaving nothing, not even pottery of bricks, and then everyone picked up again exactly where they’d left off three hundred years before is absurd.

  7. Several years ago i had the chance to be invited at a meeting – in Wels – Upper Austria,
    where Herbert Illig had been too. Some archaeologists and historian could not refute his theories with comparing facts of the world history(chinese and arabic historical times)…
    one thing was interesting:
    all the historian do n o t compare the world-wide facts….
    and the historical dates of the Babenberg dynasty in Austria had been written completely
    after 1250….
    and:I have seen falsifications (books from St.Denis /Paris) in a german exhibition…
    I have told the staff, but no answer, I sent a letter to the management of the
    exhibition: no answer….
    From that timeI do not believe into our “historical” dates any more as an unchangeable
    fact. One thousand years: just about 40 generations, what`s that , if we are the descendants of , let me say: 260 000 generations ?
    Nothing is for ever !

  8. As an African who is the descendants of victims of colonialism and white supremacy and a member of the non-white racial group, I am conscious of the fact that his-story has been altered to create the false belief of white supremacy. Thousands of years of African history and achievements has been omitted and or wiped away from history while dark marks against European history have been rearranged, altered and flat out not recorded in an attempt to shine a golden light on the white race. So while I halt at fully getting behind Illig’s theory, to me, the manipulation of historical facts for political, financial or religious power, is very plausible.

  9. Reblogged this on Arthur Goldwag and commented:

    This almost five-year-old post has gotten a lot of clicks too. Might as well re-blog it to make it easier for people to find. For what it’s worth, I actually regret my flippant tone (as I say in one of the comments). I might not agree with Illig if I knew his work better, but the fact is I don’t. As for the word “crank,” I used it in the sense that Charles Pierce did in his book Idiot America, as visionaries: “The American crank,” he wrote, “a pioneer gazing at the frontier of his own mind the way the way the actual pioneers looked out over the prairie….Very often, it was the cranks that provided the conflicts by which the consensus changed.”

  10. I have not read anything by Illig, and am therefore not commenting on this theory. Phantom and Created time are however quite common phenomena in all the worlds major chronological systems. Chinese chronology for the first two historical dynasties was probably dated too early by Ming scholars – and most of the annals for the Chinese dynasties are to be found on manuscripts written in that period, and printed soon after. These date the start of the Shang Dynasty to c1770BC and of the Chou Dynasty to c1150BC. yet the earliest, pre-Ming annals, the Bamboo Annals give dates which approximate to c1550 and c1025. Intriguingly the Ming chronology correlates the rise and fall of the Shang with two planetary conjunctions, which we now know to have happened. The Chinese associated the change of dynasty and of several reigns with significant celestial phenomena, and it is held by some Chinese historians that Ming astronomers had both the data base and the mathematics to retro-calculate significant celestial phenomena, and having worked out the date of the conjunctions re-dated the rise and fall of the Shang to correlate these political events with the celestial. There is a movement among nationalist Indian historians to reject the dates for Chandragupta Maurya and Chandragupta, the Gupta emperor – currently reckoned to be c320BC and AD320, claiming that western historians have identified the wrong Chandragupta with the ‘Sandrocottus’ who met with and negotiated with Alexander the Great. If so Chandragupta Maurya lived about c900BC and Chandragupta the Gupta emperor in c300. They claim that this proves the accuracy of the traditional date for the Mahabharata at about 3000BC, and presumably therefore its historicity. Al-Tabari the Arab historian left out 500 years of Iranian history – the period of the Arscacids, therefore appearing to date Alexander as living only 400 years before Muhammad. He also left out the entire period of the second temple in Jerusalem, placing Nebuchadnezzar and the destruction of the first temple only a generation or so before Jesus. I suspect that this underpins the denial by some current Muslim historians of the existence of the second temple, and therefore Jewish rights to the Wailing Wall. Time is not only relative it is political.

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