On Friday Chariots of the Gods author Erich von Däniken (hereafter, for my convenience, EVD) appeared on the Grimerica podcast to discuss the ancient astronaut theory. EVD, now age 81, phoned in from a mountain in Switzerland, presumably either his chalet or office in what used to be Mystery Park, and started by telling the story of how he became an ancient astronaut theorist. EVD began by repeating his well-worn story of how he is a devout believer in God but came to doubt the veracity of the Bible in his Catholic youth due to the Biblical Yahweh failing to meet his expectations for a perfect and all-loving deity. EVD left out of the Chariots of the Gods origin story his plagiarism of Morning of the Magicians and other early ancient astronaut texts, and the embezzlement he tried to explain away as stealing money for “research” trips to far-flung tourist traps.
“I was always attacked, and pressed down, and debunked,” EVD said before adding that these efforts must have failed since he wrote more than forty books. “When someone comes up with such ideas, you must be attacked,” he said, adding that this is healthy and normal and part of the democratic exchange of ideas. This is a much healthier view than that of his successors, who cry conspiracy.
EVD believes that the aliens “don’t want to shock us” and so are purposely remaining hidden as observers—dare we say Watchers?—though EVD fails to explain how he knows this. EVD says that every religion believes in the coming return of a savior figure, be it Jesus, Mahdi, Buddha, Krishna, etc. However, he concludes that all of these beliefs are false and incorrect recollections of the forthcoming return of the extraterrestrials.
Following this, EVD describes the supposed vision of the Virgin Mary to children at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. EVD holds to a conspiracy theory view of Fatima. He believes that because the so-called Third Secret of Fatima given to witnesses by the Virgin was too shocking to publish, it therefore cannot come from the gentle Virgin; consequently, the figure the children saw must be an alien. But the third secret of Fatima was released in 2000, and it contained nothing shocking or upsetting. Consequently, EVD’s illogical argument isn’t supported by facts, let alone logic.
In his old age, EVD is increasingly trapped in the past, and his arguments and evidence have barely changed since the 1960s. For example, he still thinks that the quarry marks in the Great Pyramid are a fraud perpetrated by Col. William Howard Vyse in 1837, a claim Zecharia Sitchin made in the 1970s and repeatedly debunked thereafter. When asked for the best piece of evidence for ancient astronauts, EVD first recommended the tomb lid of Pacal at Palenque, which he identifies as a rocket ship. He also claims that Mayan specialists now “translate” the coffin lid as Pacal “flying away from our planet” rather than the traditional reading of him in the underworld. I think he is referring to Linda Schele’s interpretation a few decades ago (which is “new” for EVD) that Pacal is descending through the Milky Way rather than occupying the realm of the dead. EVD then says that the best literary evidence for space aliens is the Book of Enoch with its tale of the Watchers. “Nobody knows his book because it’s not part of the Bible,” EVD said. Apparently he hasn’t been watching Ancient Aliens or attending UFO conferences.
All of this is pretty standard EVD material, but I was intrigued that EVD expanded his critique of Egyptology in this interview by using the medieval Arab pyramid myth, something he has done since the 1960s and which he continues not to understand to this very day. As far back as Chariots of the Gods, EVD expressed familiarity with the medieval Arab pyramid myth, which tells a fictitious story of how the antediluvian king Surid (or Saurid) constructed the pyramids before the Flood to preserve science and knowledge from the catastrophe, which his astrologers had predicted. EVD knew the story then from its appearance in partial translation in Col. Vyse’s Operations Carried on at the Great Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837 (1840), which is ironic since EVD considers Vyse a fraud who faked the quarry marks. EVD has always been remarkably incurious about the story; in Chariots, for example, he relays the tale as it appears in Vyse, including its incorrect attribution in that book to the historian al-Mas’udi based on an early modern copyist’s manuscript error. The version is actually a partial translation of the relevant passages of the Akhbar al-zaman, a book EVD has never read. Instead, EVD would expand his knowledge of the story through a German translation of al-Maqrizi, about which, more below. It’s worth quoting EVD in full here:
According to Egyptologists—by the way I admire them all, wonderful personalities--they think that the Great Pyramid was constructed by a pharaoh with the name of Cheops, Cheops that was around 2,500 B.C., so from now on about four and half thousand years in the back. And the only proof for Cheops, what they had was a writing written in a red color in one of these chambers. In the meantime, it turned out that this writing in this red color is definitely falisificate (sic). It was made 150 years ago, so we have no proof of Cheops. There is no statue of Cheops, no tomb of Cheops, no sarcophagus of Cheops, just nothing. But there are old Arabian historians who have written 2,000 or two and half thousand years ago about this pyramid, and they say, for example, Ibrahim Abdul al-Maqrizi (sic), they say the Great Pyramid was constructed before the Great Flood by a ruler with the name of Saurid. They precisely say Saurid was the same as the Hebrew community calls Enoch. Now Enoch—again we have the Book of Enoch—Enoch was in contact with the extraterrestrials. He learned their language. He was a teacher of mankind, and et cetera, et cetera (sic). […] I suspect we will find the books of Enoch in or under the Great Pyramid.
It’s a nice try, and more specific than most of his claims, but still wrong. Leaving aside the alleged hoaxing the quarry marks, EVD’s facts are all mixed up, showing his secondhand knowledge remains unpolished by encounters with primary sources. Taqi al-Din Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn ’Ali ibn ’Abd al-Qadir ibn Muhammad al-Maqrizi did not write 2,500 years ago but 600. His Al-Khitat was composed around 1400 CE, and I have conveniently translated the chapter on the pyramids. EVD has conflated the character of Surid with that of Hermes Trismegistus. Both were described as pyramid builders in versions of the medieval pyramid myth, but they were not identified with each other. Only Hermes was identified with Enoch, and that was through the identification of both with the Islamic prophet Idris. But beyond this, the medieval pyramid myth cannot be traced further back than Abu Ma‘shar, the Persian astrologer, who ascribed the pyramids to Hermes around 850 CE. He, in turn, borrowed the story from Christian chronologers of Late Antiquity, but in these early versions it was the temples of Egypt—specifically the Temple of Akhmim—that were the repositories of ancient wisdom, a myth modeled on the reputation of the Egyptian sages and the tradition of Enoch’s pillars of wisdom. Only a century or more later, in the Akhbar al-zaman, did this get transferred to the pyramids proper. The real al-Mas’udi, writing around 950 CE, did not know the story, and it only becomes common after 1000 CE. In other words, the story, while fascinating on its own terms, is entirely medieval in origin, from earlier and unrelated ancient parts.
EVD was also asked to respond to the allegation that the ancient astronaut theory denigrates the accomplishments of ancient humans. “The attack is wrong,” EVD said. EVD says that the aliens “never made their hands dirty” building monuments. All ancient sites, he said, were built by humans in honor of extraterrestrials, but with “engineering work” and “maybe some tools” came from the aliens. In other words, humans did the “dirty work,” just not the part that requires brains. For EVD, that’s plenty of credit for humans.
I don’t really get to hear EVD speak ad libitum at any length most of the time, so I was struck by how much his vocal patterns sound like those of Donald Trump, which either means that EVD talks like a toddler or that Trump sounds like someone for whom English is a third language. Consider this word salad, transcribed as near as I am able to parse it to verbatim: “Whenever I have critics on my desk—and I love critics by the way, especially scientific critics—when we are fair to each other, when we do not lie to each other, when we do not bluff, but simply let each one speak to the end, for two or three hours, I always learn something from the critics, and the other side always--Mr. Von Däniken, we didn’t know that, we didn’t have that information, we’re hearing it for the first time—we always find a way together, we just have to discuss.” You could imagine Trump’s tortured syntax paralleling that blob of words, though with one difference: Trump would never admit to learning from his critics.
Well, that’s neither here nor there. EVD kept on talking, discussing how about ten years ago he reversed course on modern UFOs and repudiated his previous view that UFOs were not alien spacecraft and that aliens visited only in the past. He says that after meeting key ufologists he now embraces flying saucers as the return of the ancient space gods. He’s not sure where they come from, and he is open to the frequent Ancient Aliens claim that the UFOs might be interdimensional rather than interplanetary. However, he feels that ancient myths about gods from the sky suggest that UFOs are from space rather than a parallel universe since the “gods” never claim to be from another dimension. Of course, they never say they’re space aliens either, so I’m not sure honesty is really their most endearing trait. (Also: Relatively few actually claimed to be from the stars.) He’s pretty sure, though, that the aliens had elongated skulls.
EVD said that he and Giorgio Tsoukalos are preparing for EVD’s eventual death by laying the groundwork for ancient astronaut “research” to continue. He claims that the two of them, through their Ancient Astronaut Society, have recruited 8,000 German-speaking members, of whom “10% are top scientists.” “This will continue, and you can’t stop it anymore,” he said, perhaps speaking a sad truth. However, EVD said that his message doesn’t reach the largest possible audience because the media are owned by conservative rich people who demand that ideas presented through media must be “reasonable” and will fire anyone who doesn’t express the “dogmatic” view of “reasonability.” He says that the media need to embrace unreason in order to “come to another result.” Clearly, he does not watch the History Channel on which he regularly appears, or Destination America, or a dozen other channels of unreason.
Overall, EVD seems less angry that his younger successors, almost quaint in his enthusiasm for the “mysteries” discussed and debunked in the 1970s. Now in his own twilight of the gods, EVD is more of a dotty grandpa than bomb-throwing revolutionary. It would have been nice, though, if over all the intervening decades he had ever taken his own advice about learning from the other side and stopped to wonder whether another reason besides what he sees as dogma and an unwillingness to listen has led to nearly every archaeologist and historian who encounters his work to declare it poorly reasoned, factually inaccurate rubbish.
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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