By K.E. Roberts / February 6, 2017
The idea that alien astronauts visited the Earth at some point in primitive human history, endowing us with imagination and ingenuity—and possibly our genetic code—has become the cult religion of a hyper-materialistic Western world that consecrates nothing beyond its own egomaniacal gadgetry. It’s as if the only miracle the tyranny of science will permit is the positing of extraterrestrials with better high-tech—who, for some inexplicable reason, singled out for advancement a species that was and still is plundering and decimating itself, as well as pissing away every one of its major resources. To put it another way, the ancient astronaut “hypothesis” is both anthropocentric and dehumanizing, just like the rest of our religions.
The sacred text of this curious 21st century dogma—note that Ancient Aliens has just wrapped season 11 and airs on the History Channel—is Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, first published in West Germany in 1968, with an English translation appearing the following year. While it became an immediate sensation in Europe, the book did not become a bestseller in the U.S. until the premiere of In Search of Ancient Astronauts, a one-hour “documentary” exploring Däniken’s theories, on January 5, 1973. The TV special was narrated by Rod Serling and produced by Alan Landsburg, and provided the impetus and template for the first paranormal reality TV series, Landsburg’s memorable In Search of… (1977-1982), hosted by Leonard Nimoy. (It’s worth wondering if the mainstream embrace of mysterious and occult phenomena would have occurred at all without the commanding tones of Nimoy and Serling, the latter of whom also narrated 1974’s Monsters! Mysteries or Myths, a Smithsonian-backed documentary—the highest rated of its time—that shepherded cryptozoology and the Bigfoot craze into popular culture.)
Däniken tells us, in the very first sentence of Chariots of the Gods?, that “It took courage to write this book, and it will take courage to read it,” despite the fact that every idea presented therein had been introduced previously by several authors, going all the way back to Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned (1919), where the cataloger of anomalous phenomena suggests that “other worlds explored and colonized [Earth], and fought among themselves for possession.” Two French Forteans, Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, greatly embellished Fort’s line of thought in 1960’s Le Matin des Magiciens, and an English translation—The Morning of the Magicians—appeared in 1963, becoming a bestseller in short order. Other speculative (and demonstrably unhinged) works covering the topic include Brinsley Le Poer Trench’s The Sky People (1960) and W. Raymond Drake’s Gods or Spacemen? (1964); in fiction, Arthur C. Clarke’s landmark short story “The Sentinel,” first published in 1951, tells about an ancient alien artifact (“para-physical” in nature) discovered on the Moon, and comics writer-illustrator Jack Kirby’s strip “The Great Stone Face,” which first appeared in Black Cat Mystic #59 in 1957, concerns a massive, ancient alien astronaut preserved in suspended animation and worshiped by a “primitive” African tribe. The opportunistic Däniken, who allegedly embezzled money from the hotel he was managing to fund his global travels while “researching” Chariots of the Gods?, simply dished the concoction to a “Me” generation hungry for swanky, New Age ambrosia.
Däniken’s main arguments, if we can call them that, are as follows:
- Beings intellectually and technologically superior to humans exist in the cosmos.
- At least some of these advanced beings have visited the Earth during “the most remote antiquity… the blackest darkness of time” (by which he seems to mean at some point before the death of Christ), and “annihilated part of mankind,” producing “a new, perhaps the first, homo sapiens” through selective breeding.
- What the human race has always known as God is in fact a collection of ancient astronauts. At the very least, much of what believers across the globe have long understood as religious truth and prophecy, and much of what skeptics and anthropologists have long understood as myth and metaphor, are actually historical recountings of peoples who have been visited, assisted, and altered by space strangers mistaken for gods. For instance, the description of Old Testament prophet Ezekiel’s inaugural vision of the Lord is actually the true account of Ezekiel’s visitation by an extraterrestrial spaceship, depictions of the Holy Spirit in a 16th century Yugoslavian monastery mural are actually depictions of spaceships seen by early Yugoslavian Christians, and so on.
- Once we realize that the gods are actually space travelers, and that it was their ultimate intention to prepare humanity to “make the move out into the universe,” then we will bend to the “ultimate insight” that “the whole human task consists in colonising the universe and that man’s whole spiritual duty lies in perpetuating all his efforts and practical experience [to that end]. Then the promise of the ‘gods’ of peace on earth and that the way to heaven is open [sic] can come true.”
What’s shocking to me, having never read Chariots of the Gods? until now, is how blatantly racist Däniken’s “evidence” for the second claim is, and how blatantly fascist his happy acceptance of it is. His third and fourth claims are merely contradictory and daft: while completely discounting the role of human imagination in the invention of primitive mythologies and religions, he simultaneously invents, by grand imaginative fiat and seemingly unbeknownst to himself, a new mythology and a new religion.
The entirety of Däniken’s proof that ancient aliens have visited the human race rests on his belittlement of the “primitive peoples” and “savages” who he says “could not have produced” elaborate wall paintings, architectural marvels, accurate calendars, accurate maps, and imaginative religious literature on their own. His description of the time period called into question is worth quoting in full:
Let me make it clear that I am not doubting the history of the last two thousand years here. I am speaking solely and exclusively of the most remote antiquity, of the blackest darkness of time, which I am striving to illuminate by asking new questions.
This “blackest darkness of time,” as it turns out, encompasses the era that saw the Neolithic Revolution and the emergence of civilization across the globe—not exactly a subject underrepresented in the annals of historical scholarship. Däniken questions the achievements—many of which were made more than a thousand years after “the blackest darkness of time”—of the Polynesians (the Moai monoliths), the Ottomans (the Piri Reis map), the Nazca (the Nazca Lines, the Great Idol, the Gate of the Sun), the Inca (the wall of Saksaywaman), the Mayans (the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Temple of Kukulcan, the city of Copán), Native Americans (the mythological thunderbird), the Sumerians (their astronomy, their mathematics, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, which “could not have been made up by any intelligence living at the time”), the Egyptians (the pyramids, the idea of reincarnation, and really the entirety of ancient Egyptian culture, which “appears suddenly and without transition with a fantastic ready-made civilisation”), the Arabs (“where did the narrators of the thousand and one nights [sic] get their staggering wealth of ideas?”), the Assyrians (the Nimrud lens), the Chinese (“deep-freezing” graves), the Japanese (the statue of Tokomai, or Shakōki-dogū), the Malaysians (fabrics found in the Niah Caves that “with the best will in the world one cannot imagine savages making them”), the Indians (the Mahabharata, the Iron Pillar), the South African San (The White Lady rock painting), and the Jews (the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls).
Aside from brief mentions of Stonehenge, the Lascaux cave paintings, and a fragment of a supposed Greek planetarium from 82 B.C, Däniken appears breezily confident in the human origins of every primitive European—that is, Minoan, Mycenaean, Etruscan, Scandinavian, Celt, Gaul, or Germanic—monument, text, or artwork. The following excerpt about the Mayans defines his attitude—which, again, is the foundation of the entire book—concerning race and its correlation to intelligence:
The Mayans were intelligent; they had a highly developed culture. They left behind not only a fabulous calendar, but also incredible calculations…
The famous Venusian formula [the Maya calendar and Mayan astronomy] could quite plausibly have been calculated by an electronic brain. At all events, it is difficult to believe that it originated from a jungle people. [Italics mine]
The implication, at the very least, is that pre-modern European races were perfectly capable of developing a unique culture without otherworldly assistance. Their innate intelligence is unquestioned. “Jungle people,” on the other hand…
It’s also quite clear that Däniken, for one, welcomes his alien overlords. In a thought experiment posed in the second chapter of the book, he asks us to envision “an imaginary journey by space-ship” that takes place 150 years from his writing. The crew travels many years to reach its destination—a distant sun—and lands on a planet “similar to earth” as it was 8000 years ago (when Däniken guesses alien contact with humans first occurred). The astronauts observe human-like beings “making stone tools” and “hunting and killing game with throwing spears.” The beings interact with the astronauts, bringing them gifts and teaching them their language, despite feeling “terrifyingly invaded.” Däniken then details the astronauts long-term, “preconceived plan”: first, win over and put to work part of the population; second, elect a “king” among the natives to which a radio will be entrusted “through which he could contact… the ‘gods’ at any time”; and third:
Our astronauts would try to teach the natives the simplest forms of civilisation and some moral concepts, in order to make the development of social order possible. A few specially selected women would be fertilised by the astronauts. Thus a new race would arise that skipped a stage in natural evolution.
So much for the policy of non-interventionism! So much for democracy! So much for sexual consent and reproductive rights! And to think that the same young people (though by no means only young people, as Däniken’s book had sold 30 million copies in 34 languages by the end of 1974) who so readily imbibed the hokum of Chariots of the Gods?—namely, the American and British countercultures, likely the most privileged group in either country’s history, for all their bemoaning of the establishment that bestowed said privilege upon them—was at the same time so vociferously opposed to the “immoral,” “racist,” and “colonialist” war in Vietnam.
Though there are certainly overtones of racism—as well as a blithe, implicit acceptance of the Third Reich’s corrupted interpretation of Nietzsche’s Übermensch (“overman” or “superman”)—throughout all of ancient alien “theory,” Däniken’s degradation of humanity actually goes much deeper. At heart, he believes that human beings have no heart, no spark, no native creative agency: we are purely bio-technological vessels, a collection of frozen Tin Men awaiting our interstellar Dorothies to impart the breath of life, to inject the evolution-hopping elixir into our adolescent circuitry. It’s just that the whiter skinned among us are better learners.
Like so many others in the late 1960s, Däniken claimed to reject the “mental fetters” of traditional conceptions of God and Christianity. “Many of the events described in the Old Testament,” he writes, “cannot really be reconciled with the character of the good, great and omnipresent God.” He’s not making a moral argument here, as the repugnant ethics of Chariots of the Gods? should make clear; he’s attempting a logical and cosmological argument that would become a trope in the ancient astronaut literature: God acts too much like a mortal man (i.e. He is petty, vindictive, jealous, etc.) to be God; therefore, as Randall Fitzgerald summarizes the main argument of R.L. Dione’s God Drives a Flying Saucer (1969), “God is not supernatural but supertechnological, having been rendered immortal by the miracle of technology.” This new incarnation of god or gods (the little “g” is important), by right of technological might, simply bypasses the paltry human distinction between right and wrong. Our “whole spiritual duty,” remember, a gift engineered into us by the gods, is not to be good to one another, or to do good, or to become better than we are—for how could we be any better, if the only gauge of value in the universe is technological achievement?—but to conquer the universe’s “jungle people” and seed the stars with the original and true master race.
Despite the attempts of Däniken and his many followers to elevate themselves above the “creed outworn” of Western religious tradition, the myths and symbols of ancient astronauts, alien abduction, and much of ufology are deeply invested in, if not utterly dependent on, Christian concepts and Christian beliefs, including the creation of the soul, the fall, the Messiah/Redeemer and the fulfillment of prophecy, the Second Coming (“They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory”), and the rapture. It’s as if Christianity was being rewritten by and for an idealistic yet anxious generation coming to grips with the awesome and catastrophic power of the atomic bomb, the universe-expanding promise of the Apollo program, and exponential advancements in computer science and virtually every other industry and technology. As early as 1952, just five years after Kenneth Arnold’s sighting (or vision) of nine shiny objects in the sky near Mount Rainier in Washington, Evangelical Christians were interpreting flying saucers as “part of the signs and wonders [of] the Old Testament” and “God’s own warning to the sinful” before the “second coming of the Lord.” As Barry Downing, a Presbyterian minister who claimed that Jesus Christ was an extraterrestrial in 1968’s The Bible and Flying Saucers, explained to the Associated Press in 1989:
Recognizing the existence and operations of these Unidentified Flying Objects… ‘would establish scientific plausibility for the whole biblical field… It would reinforce faith and make it possible in a scientific context.’
And even though Däniken dismisses “the crutch of hereditary orthodox learning” and proclaims that “the world of ideas which has grown up over the millennia is going to collapse,” he really wants the same thing as Downing: a secure foundation for his much younger faith, to be provided by the scientific and academic pillars of the day. Far from being the “revolutionary” tract Däniken claims it is, Chariots of the Gods? in fact sucks up to the Western establishment it claims to question. What’s so daring, after all, about the “hereditary orthodox” belief that some races are less intelligent than others, or the “hereditary orthodox” belief that “advanced” cultures have a right—a moral imperative, even—to conquer and educate “primitive” cultures? No, it is the most conventionally human activity of all. It has been the way of the world since “the blackest darkness of time.”
For all of that, there is a lingering appeal to the ancient alien hypothesis that I can understand, that I’ve harbored since my first viewing, as a child, of the Serling-narrated In Search of Ancient Astronauts. It mythologizes and sanctifies our cosmic curiosity, our yearning for poetic magic in a time of corporate science and corporate religion; and, unlike the strictures of those embedded institutions, it offers us the power to become as gods. Däniken’s repackaged messianic myth is very much an occult doctrine in that way, but married to the materialist mindset voiced by Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Alas, the cult of Däniken is the dream of a child who wants to be grown up all at once, without having to climb the long and painful path that becomes, when one no longer wants anything to do with it, adulthood. It’s entirely possible that somewhere among the stars is a species capable of both the technological miracles that Däniken worships and the benevolence and wisdom that he dismisses. Maybe in the fullness of time, when we stop acting on the primitive impulses that drive Chariots of the Gods?, we’ll be worthy of them—and worthy of ourselves.