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.
Interesting depiction of von Däniken's beginnings in Germany. Let me add that "Der Spiegel" was and is Germany's leading political magazine for intellectuals, with a clear bias to the political left.
2/24/2018 11:27:03 am
It's funny how time and age play tricks on the memory. Was there an English language translation of this out prior to 1972 ?
2/24/2018 11:48:39 am
If I recall correctly, 1970 was when the English translation was published as a book in Britain, and as a serial in the National Enquirer in the U.S. American publishers waited until 1972 to release it in book form for American audiences.
2/25/2018 04:28:14 am
According to the Bodleian Library catalogue, "Chariots of the Gods?" translated by Michael Heron was published in London in 1969 by Souvenir. ISBN: 0285629115
2/25/2018 08:36:14 pm
And AS YOU SHOULD KNOW, Triple D, books are often marked "Copyright the-year-before-publication".
2/25/2018 09:02:43 pm
Then again I've been wrong before. Nevertheless it's common for the first edition (and this would be the first English) first printing to not have a printing date. I'm sure the boffins at the Bodleian, those dears, did the best they could.
2/26/2018 04:00:30 pm
FWIW, EvD was the subject of a snide article about his troubles with the law, in the Daily Mirror, 8 October 1969:
2/26/2018 07:46:18 pm
Yeah, totes snide, Triple D.
2/27/2018 03:22:57 am
Just quoting obvious relevant bits from Wikipedia is boring. Here are some almost irrelevant bits from Wikipedia:
2/27/2018 11:33:43 am
It's like you're TRYING to sound like a pompous ass. Still, if that's you're thing, go with it.
2/27/2018 04:06:54 pm
The good news is, I'm not a Grammar Nazi.
2/27/2018 05:22:08 pm
That's like saying you haven't killed a single baby, today, yet.
2/27/2018 05:52:44 pm
Context is everything: over here it's nearly the end of today.
2/27/2018 06:35:57 pm
It's like you're SUCCEEDING in sounding like a pompous ass. Still, if that's your thing, go with it.
6/5/2019 03:53:02 pm
- retired old man: saw C of G at a bookstore in 1972, bought, never read, but fascinated by pix only available from a satellite's "view". It changed my thinking entirely about humanity. My belief in God and Heaven, and my overall beliefs remain intact - even moreso after absorbing the meaning of the pix. There is nothing that can touch the route we all will take upon death. It is truly marvelous, and miraculous, making all potentially other civilizations different from humans.
2/24/2018 12:07:15 pm
"Second, his whole premise seemed to have been lifted directly from Clarke's works and Pierre Boulle's "La Planète des singes" - both books ( and eventual movies ) popular at the time."
2/24/2018 01:01:23 pm
When you're in your 20's, you are allowed some sumptuous leaps of logic
2/25/2018 04:38:49 am
As far as I can tell from library catalogues and Abebooks, "Memories of the Future" was a subtitle in English translations, which always used "Chariots ..." as the main title.
2/25/2018 08:38:04 am
2/25/2018 09:16:50 am
To an extent, "Chariots" benefited from some unanticipated synchronicities.
2/25/2018 12:12:09 pm
So just like Charroux's work and Morning of the Magicians then.
2/24/2018 12:02:55 pm
2/24/2018 12:17:38 pm
I too remember reading his book, in fact I still, somewhere, have the American English paperback somewhere around here. I never throw anything away, especially books. I found it mildly interesting, proposing theories without supporting evidence to back them up. I think I read the whole thing in about a day and then almost immediately forgot about it. I was surprised when it became as popular as it did.
2/24/2018 12:20:47 pm
Three remarks: The German movie version of "Chariots of the Gods" was nominated for an Oscar but lost it to "Woodstock" in 1971. The SPIEGEL supported Erich von Daeniken until March 1973, when they dropped him after "The Gold of the Gods" came out. See the article about (to use the German title) "Aussaat und Kosmos" http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-42645390.html And the success of "Chariots" in West Germany owes a lot to the general enthusiasm about NASA spaceflights and the Apollo project.
2/24/2018 12:47:15 pm
You're right, I meant to write "Oscar-nominated." I'll fix that.
2/24/2018 01:07:48 pm
I have a Bantam paperback copy of Chariots of the God before me. The Printing History reads Putnam's edition published February 1970; 2nd printing; February 1970; [Econ-Verlag info]; First published in Great Britain 1969 by Souvenir Press Ltd.; Universe Book Club edition published May 1970; Six-part serialization in NATIONAL ENQUIRER February 1970; Bantam edition published February 1971
2/24/2018 01:44:11 pm
Well, that's what I get for trusting reference books. I looked in my copy, and it says the same thing. I constantly seem to find that fact-checking occurs much less frequently than we'd like to think. I'll fix it, and the typo noted below.
2/24/2018 01:49:20 pm
Spelling ≠ Grammar
2/24/2018 02:08:19 pm
I read "Chariots of the Gods" when I was eleven years old in '73. I think that was kind of the age range the book was aimed at. As I got just a little older I found it hard to believe. That was the age I went through my "UFO" phase. Ah yes...back in the days before the entire UFO subject was hijacked by channelers and other New Age Madness ala David Wilcock and Corey Goode....memories. At that age I had subscribed to a UFO newsletter from the back of a comic book. It had a strangely appropriate name "Caveat Emptor." It was a mimeographed periodical of about three pages of stories and observations with none of the hyperbole.
2/25/2018 11:34:03 pm
So true. I recall reading a lot of Charroux's books at that age. It was fascinating for a young individual... but as you say, it got quickly harder to believe, mainly as every books, and at some point chapters, would contradict themselves. When I exhausted Charroux's corpus, I switched to Daniken but felt it sounded recycled and less convincing. The suspension of disbelief didn't work. The funny thing is having all these fringe books, it's fun to see all intentional and intentional references to these claims in modern works of fiction.
2/24/2018 02:36:41 pm
Ha, "UFO phase". I guess I never got out of that. :)
2/24/2018 02:37:25 pm
Correction, the US printing was in 1970. Then 1971, as you said.
2/24/2018 03:36:15 pm
So, you can not only polish a turd, you can apparently recycle it endlessly...
2/26/2018 01:21:06 pm
2/24/2018 04:02:26 pm
After summarizing a number of the books major claims
2/24/2018 04:09:09 pm
The movie originated in Germany as a German-language production before being re-released in Britain with English narration. Alan Landsburg brought it to America and had Rod Serling narrate an edited version.
2/24/2018 04:49:19 pm
Why not have
2/24/2018 06:21:26 pm
Why? Because I can't remember whether they used the German or the British version as the base for the NBC version.
2/25/2018 09:12:30 am
Thank you for the clarification.
2/24/2018 05:05:47 pm
I read the book when I was 12 years old in 1971. I was initially convinced. (Remember I was 12) Then I went to my small collection of archeology books and after rereading them I concluded Chariots of the Gods was nonsense. So I was a believer for less than a year.
2/25/2018 11:16:42 am
Hi Jason -
2/25/2018 01:15:03 pm
So if we were to poll Ancient Aliens viewers, the vast majority don't attend church?
2/26/2018 11:45:47 am
Actually, I think the majority of their audience is watching because there isn't a football game being broadcast and their too lazy to watch anything of substance.
2/26/2018 12:40:55 pm
Hi Clete -
2/26/2018 01:06:54 pm
2/25/2018 12:25:50 pm
Might white of you to offer those weak-minded folk your guidance, Chief!
Erich Von Daniken
2/28/2018 03:09:03 am
Jason you cannot stand my sucess. My theory have been proven and millions believe what I have written. The ancient alien theory will be proven more and more and all the facts continue to show we are have been visited. Man was created by aliens and they have been here to see us grow.
2/28/2018 12:36:06 pm
"we are have been visited"
4/26/2019 02:48:47 pm
Only undeducated White European Americans believe your garbage, especially if they are from colonized countries and continents like the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand and Australia. Especially since White Eurpeans have no deep history, in the places they colonized. They want to believe that the indigenous peoples from those places were not able to make the high civilizations in their homelands, because for the most part the Europeans are Nordicists and they have no high civilizations in their own homelands because their ancestors were unable to make great civilizatIons. Civilizations like the Aztec, Maya, Olmec, Caral, Inca, and Egypt were all more advanced than Van Danikens own Northern European ancestors. Its obvious that Van Daniken and his followers are a bunch of insecure Northerners who think by attributing non white civilizations to White Gods and Ancient Aliens, it makes their own ancestors less incapable. Its only insecurity and its obviously a inferiority complex!
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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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