In 1968, Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? rocked the world with its radical question: ‘Is God an astronaut?’
Easter Island, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Nazca lines, the tomb of King Pakal at the Temple of Inscriptions in Mexico. How they were built, for what purpose and what they tell us about not only individual cultures, but human culture, development and intellectual innovation, are fundamental questions for archaeologists challenged to uncover the many secrets of our ancient past. Excavations to this day are turning up new information about these iconic places, revising histories and previously held opinion, sometimes shattering old preconceptions.
It was Sir Richard Colt Hoare (1758–1838), pioneer 19th century archaeologist who declared “We speaks from facts, not theory,” but that has hardly proved a sort of guide line or equivalent to Hippocratic oath for the field. For in the 20th century, archaeology produced a new branch of study: paleocontact.
Swiss writer Erich von Däniken is a sort of 20th century antiquarian in the tradition of the amateur expert of the 17th and 18th. He has challenged archaeology and his own interpretation of ancient objects, such the so-called Baghdad battery, ruins and symbols is that these remarkable places have their origins in contact with alien lifeforms. He literally believes cave drawings, cuneiform writings, non-canonical writings from the Bible, the Old Testament, and sites of archaeological interest tell us explicitly, even scientifically, of these alien visitations.
Take for instance the carved lid on the tomb of Maya king Pakal. It is a depiction of the deceased king in what may signify a moment of rebirth, or entering the realm of the dead. Archaeologists have studied the tomb lid in relation to the rest of the tomb, its walls and other mosaics. Erich von Däniken thinks King Pakal is sitting in a space rocket. But this is like drawing a direct comparison between King Pakal’s tomb lid and the Space Jockey in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity.”
H.P. Lovecraft’s classic short story, The Call of Cthulhu, was published in the February 1928 issue of Weird Tales. The American author did not invent what became to be known as the ‘ancient astronauts’ theory, but he sure helped popularise it among fellow science-fiction and horror writers.
Neither The Call of Cthulhu, nor his collection of stories known as the Cthulhu Mythos, is equivalent to an urtext, for Lovecraft was inspired himself by Charles Fort, a fellow American obsessed with the arcane, eldritch and esoteric, who published The Book of the Damned in 1919, a work investigating the weird and wonderful anomalies of our world. Next came Jacques Bergier and Louis Pawels, who published in 1960 their own collection of oddities, as Le Matin des magiciens (The Morning of the Magicians). This was translated into English from the French in 1963 as The Dawn of Magic. Then, in 1966, Carl Sagan and I.S. Shklovski discussed ‘ancient astronauts’ in their book Intelligent Life in the Universe.
The 1960s was the perfect time for alternative beliefs to gain prominence on just about everything under the sun. When folk realised nothing had changed much in the wake of the world’s greatest calamity – the second world war – and they cottoned on governments would lie through their back teeth to cover their errors, nefarious schemes and poor judgements, the counter culture revolution was something of a historic imperative. New Age beliefs, cults such as Scientology, the questioning of orthodoxies previously unchallenged, awakenings both political or spiritual, LSD, marijuana, the space race, 2001: A Space Odyssey, hippie culture, going underground and off-grid, the Cuban missile crisis, flying saucers, the cold war, the Manson family, political assassinations, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the summer of love: precisely the right time in 20th century history for revolutionary acts or outré ideas to grip the world, to take the form of bestselling tomes and for even the most outlandish rubbish to be taken at face value.
This is the cultural-historic road to Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? First published in German and later translated into English, it went on to sell tens of millions of copies and spawned an entire subculture related to UFOs, which fed into the hunger for answers to the big questions even science had trouble grappling with. Erich von Däniken became the public face of what was dubbed ‘paleocontact’. He was the popular figure who talked about his theories on television, the one who had a 1970 film made from his book; the guy who made his fortune from it.
Are we alone in the universe? How did we evolve? Must religious denominations drastically revise their god if God turned out to be less a mystical force and more multi-tendrilled gelatinous blob monster in possession of technology so advanced He and his ‘angels’ were able to cross aeons from one point of the universe to the other, set down on our planet and aid human development? We look to the stars to glimpse the possibilities of our future, von Däniken believes answers in the past holds the key to the truth of our being.
Born in Zofingen, Switzerland in 1935, von Däniken’s background was not at all academic, but that of the amateur enthusiast compelled to formulate ideas – his own and others’ – into book form. Chariots of the Gods? began to ferment in the author’s imagination as a schoolboy.
“I was educated in Switzerland at a Catholic boarding school by Jesuits,” von Däniken tells HistoryAnswers.co.uk over the phone from his home country. “As a young man, I was a deep believer in God – and I am still a deep believer in God – also I do not know what God is. At that time, when I was sixteen, at boarding school we had to make translations from the Bible – from Latin or Greek into German into another language. My God had to have some minimum clarities. Such as ‘God can never make a mistake’ or ‘God cannot use a vehicle to travel from point A to point B’. Making these translations, I realised God in the Bible uses vehicles to move around.”
Von Däniken latched on to the idea God and the angels represented extra-terrestrial visitors who set down the Earth thousands of years ago and helped guide humankind by bestowing upon them gifts of technology, conveniently in very rudimentary form, presumably as not to blow our tiny little minds. Cave drawings, crumbling monuments at UNESCO sites, Egyptian and Maya pyramids, art objects, totems and texts reveal these intermittent contacts. Part of von Däniken’s embracing of the Book of Enoch, a non-canonical ancient text, as a source of uncontrivable proof, is the use of first-person. He also treats these texts as scientific data because he says they deliver empirical information about the sun and moon and the universe people in 1,000 BCE couldn’t possibly have gathered themselves by observance of nature and the night sky.
Von Däniken began to look at other world cultures to see if they too revealed another piece in the puzzle. But were such forays going to wreck his Catholic beliefs? Explaining his theory, Von Däniken takes from St. Thomas Aquinas’s line of thinking, in which a chain of cause and effect leads to God (whatever that may ultimately be).
“I lost my Christian god but I never lost ‘God’. I suggested in my book that thousands of years ago some extra-terrestrials were here. They influenced the young stone age mankind. If this is correct, then we have to ask: ‘Where did these extra-terrestrials come from?’ They were influenced by another [race of beings] and you can play back this game from billions and billions of years finally to arrive at a starting point and we can say: ‘Here is God.’”
Understandably, Chariots of the Gods? has never been short of critics.
“I love the critics. Sometimes they are absolutely right and I am wrong. But I always learn. When I get scientific critics, mostly they have never read the book or never speak with me. When we sit together correctly – not blindly, not lying, not trying to convince someone with false arguments – after an hour or two I always learn something from the critic. The other side [of the debate] is a critic says to me: ‘Erich, I did not know about these ancient texts,’ and both sides learn. [That is] how it should be in an organised society.”
The plea for mutual understanding doesn’t hold much weight with the likes of Jason Colavito, author of The Cult of Alien Gods (2005). He – along with the vast majority of credible archaeologists, scientists and anthropologists -deems von Däniken’s life work as flights of fancy.
“There are areas where he has made objectively false statements, or where he has in his ignorance accepted hoaxes or frauds as evidence. By and large the problems with Chariots are matters of interpretation derived from the author’s lack of understanding of archaeology, historiography, and science.”
When HistoryAnswers.co.uk brings up the litany of factual gaffes in Chariots and his other best-selling works, von Däniken is politely bullish.
“Thousands of years ago some extra-terrestrials landed on this planet. They acted like anthropologists would do, learned the languages, observed people, and one day they disappeared. Before they left, they promised to return in the far future. That’s the main story [of Chariots of the Gods?]. I never had any doubts about the main story. Underlining the main story, you find indications … but I was often wrong. For example, I wrote that the upper Nile, near the city of Aswan, there is a little island which has the name ‘Elephant Island’. This is true. But I wrote that seen from the air the island has the shape of an elephant. How could the Stone Age Egyptians know this? That information I received from a guide. Two years later, I found out that’s all garbage. Elephant Island does not look like the shape of an elephant from the air. It’s rubbish!
“In Delhi, India there is a temple and in the temple’s court is a pillar, an iron pillar. The locals told me ‘this iron pillar has been here centuries but it does not rust,’ so I suggested in Chariots of the Gods? is this pillar composed of some extra-terrestrial material? In the meantime, this damn thing is rusting.
“I was wrong in many details, but I was never wrong in the main story. The so-called gods were here and this I can prove. I have stonewall arguments for this.”
This shifting of the goal posts with regards to what constitutes as evidence is something that his opponents are wise to.
“He has no need for consistency so long as he can claim that any ‘mystery’ has endless possible answers that might be correct,” asserts Colvaito, “and therefore he needs to cast doubt on or actively reject mainstream explanations to preserve the ‘mystery’.”
There is no denying von Däniken’s impact on pop culture. Television shows, too, such as Ancient Aliens (broadcast on H2 and History channels) and blockbuster movies have spread the message. Stargate (1994), Prometheus (2012) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) all bear the pronounced influence of von Däniken. Controversially, Rachel Job, director of programming at H2, told HistoryAnswers.co.uk that Ancient Aliens and the subject of paleocontact are just legitimate as other theories about history:
“History is a subject which is constantly being re-written, and we should always be open to looking at things from new perspectives.”
On the surface that’s a fair comment, but historians and archaeologists revise their opinions from a position of fact. That von Däniken’s successors are able to lay claim to this is something Colavito puts it down to paleocontact’s abuse of history and science, which allows it enter the mainstream with a veneer of fact that no matter how thin, can snare the unguarded.
“It allows believers to retain their belief that sacred texts and beloved myths are at some level literally true,” he says, “but it replaces God, the gods, or angels with space aliens, giving a ‘scientific’ gloss to the old ideas of faith in a way that makes them seem relevant and modern.”
One example that von Däniken has tenaciously clung to by way of ‘evidence’ is that of the Nazca Lines of Peru. His belief is, naturally, one completely at odds with the mainstream. First discovered by conquistadors in the 16th century, it wasn’t until the 1940s that the extraordinary landmarks re-entered history and became subject of field studies and speculation as to their meaning and importance.
“My idea is that in orbit we have a spaceship which has been on a long journey and needs energy from raw material. They need to measure energy and point out to Nazca. Nazca is still today the biggest mine in Peru. From orbit, they would find the raw materials that we need. They send an automatic space probe down and [humans] say ‘Something has come down from the sky and left a little line on the ground.’ The Nazcis think this is a sign from the gods and they wish that the humans make lines and start to make lines. They await the return of the gods, but they do not return. One day, a priest has an idea to show them signs and offerings for them. They start to make figures – fish, monkeys, spiders. That was my suggestion.”
For Colavito though, this – along with similar beliefs about the construction of the Egyptian pyramids and the Moai of Easter Island – is evidence of a less savoury thread running throughout Chariots.
“The underlying message of von Däniken’s work has long been that non-white peoples are incapable of achieving great things without help from an outside force.”
All of which brings us neatly back to the firmly fictional stirring of the ancient astronaut trope, H.P. Lovecraft and 1926’s The Call of Cthulhu:
“There had been aeons when other Things ruled on the earth, and They had had great cities. Remains of Them . . . were still be found as Cyclopean stones on islands in the Pacific.”