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Letters from Olympus: The Legacy of Explorer Herbert J. Thornehopper

Leda

4 September 2016

The battle over the estate of Herbert J. Thornehopper, which commenced more than a century after the explorer’s death—and has raged on between Mr. Thornehopper’s descendants and the National Museum of History for the past seven years—was put to rest on Thursday, when the court ruled to uphold Mr. Thornehopper’s will and granted custodianship of his possessions to the museum.

At the time of his passing, neither his family nor the museum believed the estate to be of monetary value; it consisted largely of maps, artefacts, and outlandish theories—which were given no credence following the debacle of the Flamotamus (the purported cross between a flamingo and hippopotamus that Mr. Thornehopper alleged to have discovered in Greenwich, Connecticut—until a second, bespectacled sighting revealed that it had, in actuality, been his plus-sized neighbor wearing a pink dress). His pronouncement that he’d been the first man to scale the height of Mytikas, the highest peak on Mount Olympus, for example—and that he’d discovered, there, evidence of the existence of the ancient Greek Gods—was dismissed as absurdity. Granted, this was also, in part, because the only one of his associates to return from the expedition (and therefore, the only person who was able to corroborate this far-fetched declaration) was, by his own admission, intoxicated for the entirety of the journey—and throughout the decade leading up to it. (Mr. Thornehopper’s adamant assurances that his remaining colleagues, whom most presumed dead—or fictitious—would be able to verify his assertions if and when they chose to return from their magical journey into an enchanted portrait of water nymphs, which was found hanging in a room that supposedly belonged to Aphrodite, did little to increase his credibility).

Shortly before his death, in a desperate attempt to be heard, he published a series of fantastical essays outlining his various discoveries in The Satirist [19th century British serial], which was the only paper to accept his submission. Whether this was a case of an editor mistaking Mr. Thornehopper’s wild claims for satire or an act of intentional mockery on the part of the paper is still unknown, but the effect was the same: once word spread that his claims were in earnest, his reputation as a lunatic was sealed.

Still, he stood by the validity of his findings until the very end, and willed his collection to the museum in the hopes that the curator, a former school friend, would extend to them the courtesy of a serious evaluation. But sadly, it seems, the museum accepted the proffered inheritance only to bury it in storage.

It wasn’t until ten years ago, after photographs taken by a drone flying over Mount Olympus captured visuals of a key landmark that Mr. Thornehopper had described and sketched in his Satirist essays that his findings were finally brought into the light. The story of the wronged genius who’d died in poverty and disrepute pulled at the heartstrings of the public, and instantly gave birth to a series of privately-funded investigatory expeditions.

Absolute confirmation of Mr. Thornehopper’s discovery was documented in the finale of the reality television mini-series entitled “Redemption on Olympus,” and the National Museum of History was quick to pounce on the wave of publicity. “It seems now,” said Evelyn Starrs, the museum’s now-curator, in a statement addressing Mr. Thornehopper’s growing popularity, “that our Herbie was, like so many great men before him, a misunderstood pioneer. He was a victim of society’s skepticism—cruelly judged by his ignorant peers. As caretakers of his legacy, we will do everything within our power to restore and honor his rightful place in history.” The museum’s plans to launch an exhibit centering around the explorer’s life and findings were put on hold when Mr. Thornehopper’s family contested the original will on the grounds that their relative may have been mentally unfit at the time of its creation, but following Thursday’s ruling, the museum announced that the postponed exhibit would open next month.

The pièce de résistance of the exhibition, we are told, will be the famous Mount Olympus entry of Mr. Thornehopper’s diary, in which he recounts the events that led to his amazing discovery. The words are blurred in places, but the museum conservators have deciphered the text as follows:

October 12th, 1886 - Day 23 of my excavation on Mount Olympus

Today I came across a small gilded chamber, which, if I’m to believe my luck (and the opinions of my associates), constitutes legitimate proof that the ancient Greek Gods did, in fact, exist. You will recall the tone of resentment with which I related the events of last evening, when Tommy drank enough brandy to drown an African elephant, became, almost immediately, entirely insensible, and, after having argued with me at length over the meaning of the German word “zauberhaft,” wandered off into the night. But now I must retract my complaints—nay, bow down to the heavens for sending me so profound a lushington—for it was our efforts to rescue Tommy from the crevasse into which he’d fallen during his half-rats excursion that led to this most desiderated discovery.

The room in question, the front step to which had served as Tommy’s pillow during the night, appeared to be an office of sorts. It was complete with a desk and a chair—both of which were embellished with fine examples of Hellenistic art. They were remarkably well-preserved until Tommy fell into them. Based on my findings, I can only presume that this was the workplace of Hermes, messenger of the Gods—for there I found a golden hat with wings, a pair of golden shoes (also winged), and, in a small saddlebag, a most curious collection of heretofore unopened (and, I therefore presume, undelivered) letters. I have packed these astonishing relics, with care, into a small padded chest.

Tomorrow we shall continue our exploration with the room next door, which we espied through a small hole in the wall (behind the portrait of Zeus). Judging from the enormous sea-shell on the floor (containing what appeared to be a golden girdle and a primitive set of handcuffs), we suspect that it once belonged to Aphrodite.

A handful of the letters mentioned in Mr. Thornehopper’s entry were used as tinder during the great snow storm of 1947, when several members of the museum’s curatorial staff were trapped in the underbelly of the building without heat or electricity for a full week, but the following missives have survived, giving us a scintillating view into the lives of Zeus and his ancient comrades:

  • A notice from Hephaestus to the citizens of Pompeii regarding a routine bicentennial evacuation for volcano-cleaning purposes
  • A list of instructions from Dionysus to King Midas outlining the potential hazards of his newly-granted power
  • A cease and desist letter from Artemis to Paris, warning him against further contact with Helen of Troy
  • Divorce papers from Hera to Zeus, citing flagrant infidelity as cause
  • A letter to Persephone from her mother, Demeter, reminding her of the dangers of pomegranate seeds
  • A warning from Zeus to the Oracle of Delphi cautioning her to stop issuing intentionally misleading prophecies
  • A collection of several complaints from Hephaestus to Zeus expressing his displeasure with his brother, Ares, for continually sleeping with his wife
  • A package from Apollo to Icarus, containing what appears to be aluminum, with a note that reads “use this instead”
  • A motion to dismiss Hermes, sent from Athena to Zeus, for repeatedly failing to execute the tasks assigned to him

The original letters will be on display, along with their translations, when the exhibit opens after Labor Day, but they leave us with more questions than answers: What happened to drive these immortal beings from their home on Mount Olympus? Where are they now? And perhaps most mysteriously of all: what became of Herbert J. Thornehopper’s remaining colleagues?


Arianna S. Warsaw-Fan Rauch is a free-lance violinist and writer. She is hardly ever employed, but she works tirelessly nonetheless—driven by the narcissistic belief that the world will eventually notice her. She lives in Berlin with her remarkably tolerant German husband, who enables her delusions by laughing at everything she writes, applauding loudly whenever she plays, and working a real job so that she, along with her eventual vizslas and children, can have food and shelter and Jimmy Choos.