Ancient Aliens had a two-hour season premiere on Friday, and suffice it to say, I am not willing to subject myself to that much Ancient Aliens in one sitting. Today I’ll look at S04E02: The Doomsday Prophesies, which aired exclusively on H2 Friday night following the simulcast of the premiere episode on History an hour earlier. It's good thing this show is on H2 now, given that they have taken to promoting apparently fake PhDs as "experts." (More below.)
I’ll have less to say about this episode since it repeats much of the same pointless speculation about the Maya from the preceding hour, often in very similar arguments and wording. I think some footage may even be repeated. Fortunately, this time, the episode does try to place the Maya in historical context, noting that they flourished in the first millennium CE, contemporary with the Middle Ages in Europe—which is not exactly “rolling around in the mud,” as one alternative theorist claimed. Surprisingly, the first H2 episode seems rather slower in pace, lingering on topics and driving the arguments into the ground through sheer repetition. How many times can one argue that the gods “came out of the sky” in one hour?
I’ll pick up with my analysis of Erich von Däniken’s 1974 Playboy interview tomorrow, but first it’s time for Ancient Aliens again. Judging from my email, it seems that a sizable part of the audience feels that there is a conspiracy to suppress the program by removing it to History’s sister station H2. It was so well hidden in fact that the conspiracy had History simulcast the first episode on its main channel, just to make sure no one saw it.
The first episode of Ancient Aliens’ new season asked whether the Maya were influenced by aliens. Most of the episode’s territory had been explored in Alan Landsburg’s The Outer Space Connection (1975), right down to the claim that the Maya expected the aliens to return when the stars came right again. But unlike Landsburg, Ancient Aliens left out the cryogenically frozen clones that the aliens were supposed to come back for. This is an improvement of sorts.
I recently got my hands on the complete 1974 Playboy interview with Erich von Däniken (vol. 21, no. 8). Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing this key document in the history of the ancient astronaut theory. First up: a few thoughts on the introduction by the editor of Playboy and interviewer Timothy Ferris.
The introductory note discusses the life and times of Erich von Däniken, from his improbable popularity to his love for the “trappings of scholarship”—books and files and the appearance of scholarly effort—rather than the scholarship itself, from his frequent convictions for fraud and embezzlement (“a criminal psychopath,” in the words of the court-appointed psychiatrist) to his financial situation. The editor also notes that von Däniken’s theories are not original to him and that his books largely recapitulate earlier theories, often with mistakes.
I was surprised by how much society has changed since Chariots of the Gods was first popular in the United States. According to Playboy, in those years bookstores (remember those?) were shelving Chariots and its sequels “unceremoniously under Fantasy.” It’s hard to imagine a bookstore today that would take an editorial position on the truth value of a bestseller, much less defy the wishes of publishers and place a purported work of Truth anywhere other than alongside legitimate works of history. I can remember 15 years ago that a lot of ancient astronaut and alternative history texts were given their own “occult” or “New Age” category at Borders (remember them?), but more recently—and especially online—these books are simply classified in general nonfiction or, worse yet, with archaeology and ancient history as the equivalents of their mainstream competitors.
It was also interesting to read one reason that von Däniken kept churning out book after book of reheated drivel, repeating himself with ferocious velocity. The article informs us that the rights to the original Chariots were filtered through a “series of publishers in a system that works out like a writer’s nightmare.” Despite selling 25 million books by 1974, each publisher along the chain took 50% of the money coming through before passing the profits upward, leaving von Däniken with little actual money, payable only after a three year delay. He had to keep writing to spawn new bestsellers whose rights he held on more favorable terms.
In the next installment, we’ll look at one of the few definitive statements von Däniken ever made about the aliens (hint: the aliens are kinky!).
The recent release of The Lifespan of a Fact (Norton) by the essayist John D’Agata and the fact-checker who reviewed his work, Jim Fingal, has received a great deal of attention, not least because of D’Agata’s cavalier attitude toward truth. D’Agata wrote an essay for Believer on the suicide of a teenager, and an intern at the magazine challenged D’Agata on nearly every assertion of fact, discovering that the essayist had purposely massaged quotations, changed facts, and, in places, outright lied in pursuit of what D’Agata claimed were artistic truths that went beyond truth as conventionally defined.
D’Agata defended his view of factual accuracy: “By taking these liberties, I’m making a better work of art—a truer experience for the reader—than if I stuck to the facts.”
To my mind this excuse works only for fiction. At some point, lying about what actually happened disqualifies a nonfiction piece from any claim to representing what really occurred. If the facts need to be changed to present a great truth, than what you have written is fiction, not journalism, and should be acknowledged as such.
D’Agata’s defense of falsehood reminded me instantly of Erich von Däniken’s infamous assertion that it did not matter whether the evidence he used to defend the ancient astronaut theory was actually true and that he was free to take poetic license in fabricating evidence so long as it served the greater good of promoting his pet theory. Von Däniken told Playboy in 1974, “In German we say a writer, if he is not writing pure science, is allowed to use some dramaturgisch Effekte—some theatrical effects. And that’s what I have done.” He also admitted in the same interview that some of his writing was purely for emotional impact: “In some part, I mean what I say seriously. In other ways, I mean to make people laugh.”
How is this different from D’Agata falsifying basic facts, which, not to get too morbid, involve the time it took the suicidal teen to fall after he jumped from a Las Vegas tower, to provide emotional catharsis, to “make people cry,” so to speak? D’Agata fudged an 8 second fall into a 9 second fall to harmonize with the 9 degrees of belts awarded in the ancient art of Taekwondo, lying too about the true number of 11 belts the martial art offers, of that Taekwondo is less ancient than McDonalds, founded only in the 1950s. This is hardly different than von Däniken’s fake cave in Ecuador filled with the aliens’ golden record books, or the dozens of other misrepresentations and falsehoods that fill ancient astronaut books.
What bothers me immensely is that these people are celebrated for, essentially, lying to the public and presenting falsehoods in the clothes of truth. I respect facts. For a manuscript I am working on, I spent six months trying to track down a fact. It required discussions with two of the world’s leading experts, consultation with a dozen obscure journals, and days spent translating Latin and Greek texts that few had consulted in centuries. Do I occasionally make mistakes? Sure. We all do, but I do strive for accuracy and truth. All of that work would come to nothing if it is accepted that writers can simply make up what they don’t know. I know it would sure be easier to make up an answer than hunt down the true one.
But what good comes of the hard work of finding facts if lies and distortions are held up as a separate but equal way of knowing? There is a word for stories that are not true but contain emotional truth. That word is “fiction,” and that is where these false stories belong.
This month’s National Geographic has an interesting story about “glacial erratics,” boulders left behind by the glaciers that once covered large parts of North America. After seeing rocks riding on European glaciers, Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) used the existence of such rocks in Europe to develop the theory of the Ice Age, arguing that the distribution of these rocks implied that vast ice sheets had once covered the continent and deposited the stones.
Prior to Agassiz’s work, these erratic stones were believed to have been deposited by Noah’s Flood, the only force religious scholars could imagine capable of transporting boulders across the landscape. In the Geographic article, Native American legends claimed that the boulders were stones that “fell from the sky,” presumably because there seemed to be no local source capable of producing such immense and out-of-place rocks.
This case is rather instructive since we have a situation analogous to the ancient astronaut theory or “alternative archaeology.” Ancient myths tell one or more conflicting stories about an anomaly and science proposes a completely different view drawn not from religion but from evidence.
If we were to follow ancient astronaut methodology, these boulders would be clear “evidence” of a global flood or a rain of sky boulders, since ancient people, after all, always report the unvarnished truth (except, of course, when the ancient astronaut theory requires another outcome).
As we prepare for the imminent return of Ancient Aliens this Friday, let's look at another of the ancient astronaut theory's most outrageous claims. Today's Great Moment in Ancient Astronautics comes from Bruce Rux's 1996 book Architects of the Underworld: Unriddling Atlantis, Anomalies of Mars, and the Mystery of the Sphinx. Rux is a former actor, a follower of Zecharia Sitchin, and a conspiracy theorist who believes that Hollywood uses movies and TV shows about UFOs to aid the government in covering up alien visitation now and in the past, as detailed in his book Hollywood vs. the Aliens (1998). He also believes that ancient astronauts and current “grey” aliens are in fact robots sent by the real aliens from their home planet.
According to Rux, references to the Underworld in ancient mythology are code for the planet Mars. His evidence is that the Underworld is usually thought of as laying in the far west and is associated with the color red: “Since ‘sea’ or ‘ocean’ can also mean ‘[outer] space,’ and there is no up or down in space, it is certainly possible that this Underworld is actually beneath the earth—another planet” (364). Since the Underworld’s color is red (usually thought to represent the sunset), this planet must be the Red Planet, Mars.
The aliens’ robots, who appeared to ancient humans as gods, created the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the dead because they engaged in cloning and took tissue samples into deep space for cloning (since bodily transport requires too much fuel), an idea proposed by Erich von Daniken in the 1970s and developed by Alan Landsburg extensively in The Outer Space Connection, the book that claimed aliens would come back for the clones on Christmas Eve 2011.
By Rux’s analysis, the color red is closely associated with white and black in alien cosmology, so therefore, such figures as (and I am not making this up) the Red Cross (red symbol on a white background), the country of Japan (red sun disc on a white flag), Easter Island’s statues (which once wore red hats), and Santa Claus (because of his clothes) are all part of the aliens’ secret plans directed from their Martian base.
Yes, you heard it right: the Red Cross, Japan, Easter Island, and Santa Claus are all part of an alien conspiracy overseen by the U.S. government, a secret guarded so carefully that only someone as clever as Bruce Rux was able to identify it.
So I guess that’s where Futurama got its evil robot Santa idea. No, wait… wouldn’t that be part of the conspiracy from Hollywood vs. the Aliens? My God, the aliens have gotten to Bruce Rux! His theory is actually helping the conspiracy! He must be one of Them!
This week Ancient Aliens moves to its new home on the H2 network, the History Channel sister station previously known as History International until September 2011. While show partisans attempted to make the most of the move, it clearly is not a step up for television’s most reductive history program. In fact, the move to H2 reveals a few essential truths about Ancient Aliens and the corporations that benefit from promoting the ancient astronaut theory.
First, History officials see Ancient Aliens and its audience as a commodity that can be exploited to further their financial interests. H2 averaged only 196,000 prime time viewers last year according to Broadcasting and Cable magazine, while the History Channel proper reaches a nightly audience ten times as large and is the third most-watched cable channel in the United States as of Feb. 5. Executives reasoned that if even a quarter of Ancient Aliens’ two or three million viewers go with it to H2, the network’s ratings will more than double, increasing exponentially what H2 can charge for commercial time.
Second, the powers that be at History can’t seriously believe in the ancient astronaut theory or they would want to ensure it had the widest possible audience. The obscure H2 station is not the widest possible audience, and their willingness to shed millions of viewers from Ancient Aliens to boost the fortunes of H2 speaks to this.
Of course, at the same time, History has also moved nearly all of its history-based programming to H2, leaving the main History Channel home to the more popular and profitable reality shows like Ice Road Truckers and American Pickers, so I suppose one could say that the network’s executives don’t really believe in history at all, except insofar as it can be used to make money. And that is the real take-home lesson of Ancient Aliens.
A controversy has emerged yet again over whether the display of the Ten Commandments constitutes government establishment of religion. Many religious believers say no, claiming the text is a universal set of rules for human life. But it seems to me that displaying the Commandments is a highly sectarian decision for a reason that many casual believers, and most secular humanists, don’t know: Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and the Orthodox have different commandments. Choosing a text of the Ten Commandments invariably establishes government imprimatur on one of these sects at the expense of the others.
Jews, for example, hold that the first Commandment is Exodus 20:2, “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” No Christian group, however, believes this verse to be a commandment.
Catholics and Lutherans take Exodus 20:3-6 as the first Commandment (having no god before God and making no graven images). Jews take this to be the second Commandment. Protestants and Orthodox Christians divide these into two Commandments, Exodus 20:3 (the primacy of God) and 20:4-6 (graven images).
By contrast, Protestants and Orthodox Christians count Exodus 20:7 (“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.”) as a single commandment, while Catholics and Lutherans divide it into two, with the neighbor’s wife (“lust”) being separate from the other property (“greed”).
The problem arises, of course, because Exodus 20:2-17 contains 16 verses that must be divided into just Ten Commandments, as per Exodus 24:38 and Deuteronomy 4:13, but without any clear demarcation of which verses (a medieval numbering convention) belong to which commandment.
So, given that each religious group has created its own list of Commandments, any government plaque or memorial or display must by necessity take a sectarian position by choosing which of the three competing numbering systems to use, therefore establishing one set of Commandments above the others as the government’s official choice. Who among religious believers wants to explain to his or her child why the classroom or the courthouse displays religious texts telling that child that his or her religion is the wrong one?
One of the most important methods of the alternative historian is to seek correlations between far-flung locations in order to postulate a common source, whether this be Lemuria, Atlantis, another “lost civilization” (Atlantis in all but name), or extraterrestrials. The most notorious of these supposed correlations is the existence of pyramids worldwide, but the same method has also been applied to mythological figures and themes. To illustrate how easily spurious correlations can occur, let’s consider two texts written in very different contexts.
The first text is from Japanese scholar Okakura-Kakuzo in his Awakening of Japan (1904):
"[The dragon] is the spirit of change, therefore of life itself. We associate him with the supreme power or that sovereign cause which pervades everything, taking new forms according to its surroundings, yet never seen in a final shape. The dragon is the great mystery itself. Hidden in the caverns of inaccessible mountains, or coiled in the unfathomed depth of the sea, he awaits the time when he slowly rouses himself into activity. He unfolds himself in the storm clouds; he washes his mane in the blackness of seething whirlpools. His claws are in the fork of the lightning, his scales begin to glisten in the bark of rain-swept pine-trees. His voice is heard in the hurricane which, scattering the withered leaves of the forest, quickens a new spring. The dragon reveals himself only to vanish. He is a glorious symbolic image of that elasticity which shakes off the inert mass of exhausted matter. Coiling again and again on his strength, he sheds his skin amid the battle of elements, and for an instant stands half revealed by the brilliant shimmer of his scales. He strikes not till his throat is touched. Then woe to him who dallies with the terrible one!" (pp. 77-79)
Now let us take our second text, from H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” (1928), relating an imaginary fragment of the dreaded Necronomicon:
"Nor is it to be thought (ran the text as Armitage mentally translated it) that man is either the oldest or the last of earth's masters, or that the common bulk of life and substance walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, they walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen. Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They had trod earth's fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread. By Their smell can men sometimes know Them near, but of Their semblance can no man know, saving only in the features of those They have begotten on mankind; and of those are there many sorts, differing in likeness from man's truest eidolon to that shape without sight or substance which is Them. They walk unseen and foul in lonely places where the Words have been spoken and the Rites howled through at their Seasons. The wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness. They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites. Kadath in the cold waste hath known Them, and what man knows Kadath? The ice desert of the South and the sunken isles of Ocean hold stones whereon Their seal is engraver, but who bath seen the deep frozen city or the sealed tower long garlanded with seaweed and barnacles? Great Cthulhu is Their cousin, yet can he spy Them only dimly. Iä! Shub-Niggurath! As a foulness shall ye know Them. Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not; and Their habitation is even one with your guarded threshold. Yog-Sothoth is the key to the gate, whereby the spheres meet. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again."
Both of these passages are remarkably similar, using the same nature imagery, the same specific details about the inability of supernatural creatures to be glimpsed directly—even the very same image of the wind serving as the voice of the entities (“the wind gibbers with Their voices” vs. “his voice is heard in the hurricane”). What’s more, the final lines of Okakura-Kakuzo’s text clearly anticipate the climax of the “Dunwich Horror,” where the son of Yog-Sothoth is briefly glimpsed in a lightning storm.
All in all, if we were alternative historians we would have to conclude that these two passage must be derivative of a truly ancient primal text about extraterrestrial lizard people visiting the earth. But not only is this wrong, so far as I know Lovecraft had never read or heard of the Japanese scholar or his work. And even if he had, it would hardly presuppose the existence of an archetypical text on which these two later writers drew. Sometimes humans just strike upon the same idea more than once by accident.
One of the themes I’ve written about more than once is the importance of articulating the rules we use for determining whether to accept evidence for extraordinary claims about history. Consider, for example, the following four cases of books with supernatural origins:
Now ask yourself what the difference is between the Necronomicon and these other dubious sources. By what rules do we accept astral literature about ancient airplanes but not about Cthulhu? Until someone can explain to me why some “channeled” texts are real and others are not*—and how we are to judge the difference—I categorically reject supernatural books as so many figments of the human imagination.
* Note: Despite claims that the texts involved are genuinely ancient, the people who claimed not to be their authors vigorously defended their copyrights on the works in question, even though by their own admission these books ought to be in the public domain and freely available for translation.
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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