A British history magazine ran an article this week profiling Erich von Däniken and discussing the Swiss author’s longstanding belief that space aliens are the force animating human history. For an opposing view, the magazine turned to me, and I am quoted extensively in deconstructing von Däniken’s carefully crafted image as a nice old man who is just asking questions. He is, after all, the man who once said that Black Africans were a mistake that space aliens rectified by creating whites.
The article presents many of my conclusions about von Däniken’s accidental influence from H. P. Lovecraft, whose space gods were given a nonfiction sheen by von Däniken’s direct source, The Morning of the Magicians, written by Lovecraft super-fans Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier.
We find in this most recent interview (which I had not seen prior to my own interview for the article) that the elderly author of Chariots of the Gods? is still offering the same old lines that we find in Chariots, nearly 50 years ago. His argument, however, for why he believes that the Old Testament God is not a divinity has modern resonance because so-called “alt-right” pseudo-intellectual Jason Reza Jorjani lifted the exact same ideas in order to condemn Yahweh as a malign alien in Prometheus and Atlas (2016), a book meant to be an intellectual foundation for the political groups that everyone but Jorjani admits to be a white nationalist movement.
According to von Däniken, speaking last month, “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.” Compare this to his Chariots from 1968, where he first claims that Yahweh is a plural set of multiple beings: “They were certainly not ‘gods’ in the traditional sense of the word, or they would not have needed a vehicle to move from one place to another. This kind of locomotion seems to me to be quite incompatible with the idea of an almighty God.”
Now in the twilight of his life, von Däniken has become more insistent on the spiritual nature of his message. This has always been part of his work—he wrote a book on Christian miracles three decades ago—but now it is becoming more insistent. He told writer Martyn Conterio that he believes that God is the first cause of the universe, inspiring the first aliens, who influenced other aliens, who influenced still more aliens, until the divine wave, traveling from species to species, reached us. Thus can he reconcile a seemingly non-theistic ancient astronaut theory with the lingering love of God leftover from his lapsed Catholicism.
But I was most interested in the braggadocios way that von Däniken paints himself as embracing criticism:
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.
In other words, von Däniken claims that critics are ignorant and will come around as soon as they are confronted with ancient texts. This seemingly happy accident is a far cry from how he presents himself in his books, where he frequently lashes out at critics and claims any number of unfair conspiracies are being waged against him and his ideas. For example, in 2015 he said that “the television professors and debunkers want to make Erich von Däniken look like an idiot.” Even though I have read nearly all of his books, and he alleges to be open to speaking with his critics, he has refused to speak to me.
He isn’t alone in that: Last year Alien Con offered me interviews with ancient astronaut theorists from Ancient Aliens and then reneged, lest I ask challenging questions. Last week National Geographic offered me an interview with Simcha Jacobovici and Richard Freund about their claim to have discovered Atlantis. I accepted, and as of this writing NatGeo’s PR team stopped all communication with me three days ago and have not scheduled the interview or provided the promised screener of the documentary. Reading between the lines about the availability of a screener, the network also isn’t letting the people they are allowing to speak with the filmmakers actually see the documentary before it airs. Could it be because they don’t want any challenging questions? Without a screener, interviewers can only guess at the show’s content and report uncritically what the claimants have to say. That is not reporting so much as stenography.
Anyway, I will leave it to you to read the remainder of the profile of Erich von Däniken and my comments on the grand old man of kooky claims.
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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