I would be remiss if I were to let this month go by without marking the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the seminal work of the ancient astronaut theory, Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?. The book was published in February 1968 as Memories of the Future, retailing for 16 marks, and it would soon become synonymous with the idea—long discussed in UFO and ancient mystery books—that space aliens came to Earth from the skies. While in Europe, readers quickly took to the book and it became a bestseller within months of its release, in the United States, the book did not become a byword for countercultural archaeology for a few years, starting when the National Enquirer serialized it in 1970 and even more so in 1973, when an NBC-TV adaptation of the book, lightly reedited from an Oscar-nominated European movie version, introduced von Däniken’s ideas to a mass audience, who went on to buy millions of copies of the book, which had been released in English translation in Britain in 1969 and America in 1970.
Penguin RandomHouse is currently reading a new fiftieth anniversary edition for publication, with a new foreword and afterward by the author, and the question mark that once rendered the title into an interrogative removed. The title is now a statement of presumed fact rather than a point of inquiry. You can see from the sumptuous cover design how much effort the publishers have put into creating a sumptuous package for a faulty text. The book is due out in July. I have seen some of the prepublication marketing materials, and I have requested a review copy. Penguin isn’t always open to sending me review copies when requested, but I will be cautiously optimistic about receiving one for review.
However, what I would have liked to see instead is a critical edition of Chariots, one that included extensive notes and commentary to explain and explicate the many mistakes and lines of faulty reasoning that von Däniken committed. A fully annotated Chariots, beautifully produced, would have been a worthy contribution to science and history. Of course, that will never happen because the publisher’s audience isn’t those looking for truth but those who think they’ve already found it.
To mark the occasion, however, I thought it might be interesting to share some excerpts from one of the original German reviews of the book from the time of its release. The anonymous review, entitled “Jehovah the Astronaut,” appeared in Der Spiegel on May 13, 1968. Since I do not have the permission of Der Spiegel to translate the entirety of the review, I will instead present a few relevant excerpts to look at how German readers first learned about one of the twentieth century’s most influential archaeology books.
The review starts off with a tone of bemusement, and it is clear that the reviewer does not believe that von Däniken is entirely serious, and the opening paragraphs offer a bit of linguistic play on the book’s claim that humans were created by aliens from apes:
In the distant past, alien astronauts discovered the Earth and taught the apes propriety and culture. Through the artificial insemination of female earthlings with astronaut sperm and the radical extermination of failed specimens by means of a flood, they succeeded in breeding Homo sapiens. The ennobled apes worshiped the astronauts as gods.
After summarizing a number of the book’s major claims, many of which the reviewer wrongly attributes to von Däniken’s original research rather than simply copying from earlier authors, the reviewer quickly recognizes that there is a general theme that represents the real purpose of the volume: “The underlying claim is that modern science has been unable to conclusively explain numerous finds [and therefore] the numerous hypotheses of the antiquarian have in fact the same degree of credibility as the theory of Däniken the amateur.”
The remainder of the review is mostly a summary of Chariots’ major claims, focusing on the allegation that Sodom and Gomorrah had been destroyed by a nuclear bomb (a claim originally made in Soviet propaganda a decade earlier), the claim that the Ark of the Covenant was a device for communicating with space aliens, and the claim that the lid of Pakal of Palenque’s sarcophagus (then mistakenly believed to represent the god Kukumatz rather than a king) was actually a depiction of a man in a rocket.
The reviewer draws no conclusions about the book, but ends the review with a surprising statement I had not seen elsewhere. According to the writer, Werhner von Braun had endorsed von Däniken’s claims about Pakal’s “rocket”!
In fact, archeology has not yet been able to explain the puzzling stone carving of Palenque. Däniken says, “After all, one is not seeing ghosts when one is analyzing actual objects.” Rocket builder Wernher von Braun also seems impressed by the space-faring Kukumatz. Braun said, “I won’t deny this possibility.”
That would have been amazing, if only it were true. Far from being a piece of enterprising reporting from Der Spiegel, it was actually a bit of fake news. The reviewer took a quote out of context and wrongly claimed that it referred to Pakal’s coffin lid. Instead, it was a quotation from an interview von Braun gave to von Däniken and which is quoted in Chariots. The quote is a little different:
[Von Däniken:] “Is there a possibility that older intelligences could have paid a visit to our earth in the dim mists of time?”
That’s just about perfect. Der Spiegel ended its initial coverage of Chariots of the Gods with an out-of-context misrepresentation of a serious scientist’s words. It’s really no wonder that the public were so easily duped, when the media couldn’t quite bring themselves not to play along.
Fun fact: Von Däniken’s first publisher, Econ-Verlag, only agreed to review his manuscript because he had this quote from von Braun, giving his enterprise credibility with the publishing house.
But as the first months wore on and the book’s success multiplied beyond initial expectations, it became clear that Chariots was not a silly fad but a serious development in the public understanding or science. A year later, Der Spiegel had changed its tune massively, but it was too late. Here is how the March 17, 1969 article alleging that von Däniken was a fraud and a plagiarist opened:
Erich von Däniken, 33, author of the massive bestseller “Memories of the Future” (SPIEGEL 20/1968), has forgotten both the past and the present.
The critical account of the book’s success looked aghast at the volume’s massive sales—215,000 copies in a year—but with greater horror at the public’s embrace of what even its publisher called “the work of an emotional non-writer.” More importantly, the media were gradually coming to realize that the professional and scientific elites had dropped the ball in either ignoring or smiling in bemusement at a book that no one at first thought was any different than dozens of other UFO books, widely dismissed in Germany as “fairy tales for adults.” Something had changed. It was the book for its time.
In taverns and in offices, on the tram and at parties, “Dänikitis” (as “Handelsblatt” terms it) is rife. Thousands of Germans are discussing whether the Bible’s heavenly hosts were astronauts from a distant planet, whether the Jewish Ark—in which the tablets of stone were kept—had actually been an intercom between Moses and Jehovah’s spaceship, or whether the sinful cities Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by a nuclear bomb blast.
The remainder of the article discusses the various plagiarism charges leveled against both von Däniken and Charroux. Charroux’s German translator accused von Däniken of ripping off Charroux, while von Däniken countered by alleging that both he and Charroux were jointly copying from Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels’s Morning of the Magicians, though I can’t believe that this made things better. Nevertheless, the resolution of the controversy resulted in both Charroux and Pauwels and Bergier being added to the bibliography of Chariots and the most cynical conclusion possible: The two authors’ publishers decided to work together to promote both authors jointly, as part of a genre of ancient astronaut studies. It was a precedent that would carry the ancient astronaut theory and its round-robin of mutual plagiarism and copying straight through the next half century.
So as we celebrate the golden jubilee of a very bad book, it’s worth remembering that it stands for the entirety of its genre with good reason: Unlike any book of its kind before, it was unoriginal, emotional, dubiously sourced, and cynically exploited for financial gain by publishers and media figures alike, all to the detriment of the public, until it was too late.
I will have additional reporting and analysis of Chariots of the Gods? throughout this fiftieth anniversary year.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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