Since Erich von Däniken has put out another new book—which even his fans admit is a recycled pastiche of his earlier books—there has been, as always, more internet chatter about the possibility of extraterrestrial gods. Last week at the UFO Iconoclast(s) blog, the contributor identifying him- or herself as RR explained that von Däniken’s Evidence of the Gods contained one particular claim that made the ancient astronaut theory not just possible but probable:
It is unreasonable because not all (or even most) of the gods come from the skies. Some do, certainly, but by no means all of them, and it distorts ancient religious beliefs to suggest that the gods “came from the skies.” Let’s look at some of the gods that don’t come from the sky.
Let’s start with everyone’s favorite ancient astronaut, Oannes. Technically not a god but a demigod, this creature came up from beneath the sea. Other gods who emerged from the sea include Ea (Enki), the Mesopotamian inhabitant of the hidden belowground Abzu sea; Viracocha, the pre-Inca creator god who arose from beneath Lake Titicaca and disappeared into the Pacific; and Fe‘e, the Polynesian octopus god who was born beneath the sea, lives in the sea, and has his temple in a fabulous undersea city. (Fun fact: His temple was called “The House of the Octopus” and, like Cthulhu’s R’lyeh, was a megalithic stone pile. A more fun fact: Fe‘e wasn’t just an octopus god but the god of war to whom the Polynesians prayed for “red flaming rage.” The ‘real’ Cthulhu!) There are countless sea gods, and it would be tiresome to list them all.
In a related area, Atum, the Egyptian creator god, emerged from the primordial waters along with the first land. So, let’s move on to earth gods. The Greeks had an entire category of chthonic deities who emerged from the earth and were believed to live under it. Melichios, the underground snake god, is just one of these creatures. When Hades makes his appearances, he erupts from beneath the earth The cult of the heroes, worshiped as underground wonderworking immortals, is believed to have descended in part from an earlier phase of belief in earth deities. Even Poseidon, later a sea god, is believed to have originated as an earth god in his role as maker of earthquakes. Among the Etruscans, the supreme deity (according to Varro), Voltumna, was also an earth god with no connection to the sky. He, in fact, emerged from the forests and the plants. Even the sun was not considered a “sky” god in the sense of living in the heavens but rather one that erupted from the earth in the morning and sank into it at night, as demonstrated by Mesopotamian and Greek stories of the sun’s underground lairs. In Mesopotamia, the sun judged the dead from his nighttime abode.
It is simply impossible that the early Greeks believed that the gods descended to earth from outer space, since they believed that the earth was covered over with a dome of bronze (Iliad 17.425) or iron (Odyssey 15.329).
But at the more philosophical level, the idea of the gods coming down from the sky is problematic because many gods have their origins before the existence of the sky. In the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth, the gods are born from Tiamat, the monster who emerged from the chaos before creation. It is only when Marduk cleaves her in twain that earth and sky are created. Similar stories occur in Greek mythology, where earth and sky (Gaia and Ouranos) emerge from primal chaos, as well as in Genesis, where God exists prior to the creation of earth and sky in Genesis 1:1.
So, the descent of gods from the sky is a very limited subset of all myths about the gods. Some cultures envisioned gods living in the sky—but not all—and it was primarily the Greeks who, in rationalizing their faith, plucked the gods from their trees and rocks and underground homes and sent them all to live with the sky and storm god Zeus atop Olympus (note: again, not in the sky). Otherwise, sky gods are simply another class of deity, along with the sea gods, plant gods, earth gods, and other assorted denizens of a world in which every rock, tree, and river was alive with power, mystery, and divinity.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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