Regular readers will remember Dr. Greg Little as the writer who is currently promoting material about prehistoric giants and before that had investigated Atlantis as channeled by Edgar Cayce. He’s also the author of articles specifically criticizing me by name for not agreeing with his preferred analysis of so-called giant skeletons. Little is back this month with a new article in Alternate Perceptions magazine (Sept. 2014) that is apparently meant to challenge my view, in The Cult of Alien Gods (2005), that H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction was instrumental in the development of the modern ancient astronaut theory. I say “apparently” because Little refers to my work only elliptically, complaining of “various bloggers and writers have attempted to credit the idea of ancient astronauts to some person who is, for one reason or another, a favorite of the writer.” From the evidence of the article, it seems clear that I am one of the writers he has in mind.
Little traces the idea of ancient astronauts to various sources, and there is relatively little (if one may pardon the pun) to disagree with except where Little presumes greater familiarity with the literature than he actually has. His candidate for the inventor of ancient astronauts is Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish theologian and mystic. Swedenborg was not an ancient astronaut theorist; if anything, his views were a proto-Theosophy. He claimed to have met beings from the Moon, Jupiter, Venus, and other bodies from the solar system who had spiritual form but manifested in physical bodies from time to time on the earth. This is quite similar to the beings of air that supposedly manifested for Fazio Cardano centuries earlier from some other realm and gave lectures in Renaissance Italy (Gerolamo Cardano, De Subtilitate, book 19).
According to Little, “While a few modern writers want to credit others for the earliest depictions of life on other planets and the idea that these beings had and were visiting and influencing earth, the fact is that Swedenborg was the first.” And yet Swedenborg was not the first to propose life on other planets, or that said life interacted with humanity. The ancient Greeks speculated on the concept, and Lucian, in his satirical True History, wrote of moon men who were fighting with the inhabitants of other planets for control of the celestial bodies. Famously, Christians placed angels among the spheres of the planets, as Dante made quite clear in his Paradiso where the various angels and spirits live on the various planets until Dante passes beyond the celestial sphere to the throne of God. Nicole Oresme (d. 1382) and Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) are often suggested as the first Christian extraterrestrial theorists. Among the Jews, the Talmud claimed the existence of 18,000 planets. Hasdai Crescas wrote of aliens on other worlds in 1555, and the Sefer Habrit, written around the time of Swedenborg, similarly argued for inhabited worlds. In Japan, the myth of the “Bamboo-Cutter and the Moon Child” from the tenth century CE specifically claimed that beings from the moon came down to earth and mated with humans. If you’re interested, I collected many proto-science-fiction stories of early moon people in an anthology called Moon Men back in 2012.
Swedenborg offered nothing that Dante hadn’t suggested, except that Swedenborg’s spirit beings were slightly more material than the angels of nine spheres.
Little next surveys late nineteenth century science fiction and notes the presence of extraterrestrials in it, as though the ground hadn’t been primed by Percival Lowell’s claim to have discovered an advanced and ancient civilization on Mars just a few years before the spate of Martian-themed fiction began. He also represents the novel Aleriel (1883) by W. S. Lach-Smyrza as the story of Venusians who influenced Christianity, though so far as I can tell the Venusian hero does not claim Venusian influence on the early Church but rather the space beings’ love of Christian values. Little further decides to overemphasize the importance of Bulwer-Lytton’s Coming Race (1871), despite it having nothing to do with aliens, because of its connection to Theosophy. Little credits the book for its influence but seems unaware that Bulwer-Lytton was building on magic underground civilization novels and nonfiction dating back at least five decades before Coming Race was ever published, including the nonfiction claims of John Cleves Symmes, Jr. and Jeremiah N. Reynolds and Capt. Adam Seaborn’s 1820 novel Symzonia.
But Little isn’t done complaining about my ideas:
In the 1960 book, “The Morning of the Magicians,” a book often wrongly credited as the fundamental starting point for the modern explosion of the ancient astronauts idea, the influence of Bulwer-Lytton’s book is apparent and even mentioned. “The Morning of the Magicians” was an influential book, but those knowledgeable of ufology know that the theory had already been fully presented.
Little misunderstands the difference between the spark that set off a popular movement and the first proposal of an idea. Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, but it is impossible to write a history of automobiles without talking about him as popularizing them. As I wrote in Cult of Alien Gods, the ancient astronaut theory as we know it had been developed by the Theosophists (with their ships full of invading Venusians) and by Charles Fort (who wondered if earth were a prison planet with Martians for wardens), not to mention the works of H. P. Lovecraft—who is also “even mentioned” in Morning of the Magicians and who is more directly related to ancient astronauts than Bulwer-Lytton.
Little also makes much out of dentist John Ballou Newbrough’s Oahspe: A New Bible (1882), which postdates Blavatsky’s Theosophy, as given in Isis Unveiled (1876—of which Little is unaware, thinking she began with Secret Doctrine twelve years later), and is a semi-Christianized parallel to Theosophy, with angels from other worlds flying to earth in ships and influencing the prehistory and evolution of humanity for Jehovah, pretty much like the way Blavatsky had Eastern-derived spirit beings do the same thing. Newbrough’s angels are former mortals from this and other worlds who attained spiritual enlightenment, like the Ascended Masters of Theosophy. Little would like us to read the angels as ancient astronauts, which in a sense they are, at least as much as Blavatsky’s Ascended Masters, who predate these guys by several years and adapt Eastern beliefs about rising to the rank of Buddha—not unlike Greek heroes or Christian saints. But why might these angels be ancient astronauts but not those of Dante or the goddess of the Japanese Bamboo-Cutter myth? The “fire ships” used by the angels that fascinate Little are quite clearly derived from the chariots of fire found in the Bible and in ancient myths as the conveyances of God or the sun god. One of these fire-ships, the Seraphim, opens the gates of heaven and let water pour in from the ethereal seas (which is why boats were needed in the sky!), prompting the Great Flood (Osiris 5:15).
Little correctly cites Morris K. Jessup as a 1950s proponent of the ancient astronaut theory, but he was not the only one, or even the first. The religious crank John Miller distributed pamphlets claiming that Bible miracles were the result of flying saucers, and George Van Tassel and George Adamski offered visions of aliens visiting earth in the past in connection with spiritual claims. Frank Edwards simply fabricated evidence for ancient astronauts in Stranger Than Science (1959). Outside the English speaking world, Soviet speculators like Matest M. Agrest offered ancient astronaut theories much closer to (and inspiration for) those used in Morning of the Magicians. The French explorer Henri Lhote claimed ancient Martian influence in the Sahara in 1958.
Little’s mistake in logic is akin to saying that because there were so many different anthropoid species that could have given rise to human beings, there is no reason to pay special attention to the one that did. This can be best illustrated by looking at the events in reverse order to see why Morning of the Magicians (and thus H. P. Lovecraft) is more important for today’s ancient astronaut theory than Jessup or Swedenborg.
The modern ancient astronaut theory takes its shape from the popular version of ancient astronauts made familiar to the American public via the documentary In Search of Ancient Astronauts (1973), hosted by Rod Serling. It is to this day the most watched ancient astronaut program of all time, capturing more than one-third of all American viewers watching TV that night—tens of millions of viewers. This documentary was explicitly based on Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods and was in fact an edited version of a 1970 German documentary about Chariots of the Gods. Around the same time, the National Enquirer ran a serialization of Chariots of the Gods, sending its message to its millions of readers. It remains the most-read ancient astronaut book of all time. Quite literally no other ancient astronaut book comes close in terms of direct and indirect exposure, even though it was neither the first nor the best of the lot. It happened to have great publicity due to a coincidence of timing—Serling came across it right when NBC was canceling his Night Gallery. Were it not for the network’s lack of faith in a horror series that adapted Lovecraftian material, the ancient astronaut theory might never have made it to TV in the hugely successful form it did.
Von Däniken, in turn, was eventually forced to acknowledge—after many complaints—that he had borrowed much of the “evidence” in Chariots from Robert Charroux (himself influenced by Morning of the Magicians) and from Morning of the Magicians itself. This is why Morning of the Magicians is more important than Jessup, whose work has been largely forgotten.
Morning was especially important because it folded into the ancient astronaut idea threads drawn from occult Nazism and from Atlantis/Lost Civilization theories, creating a matrix of ideas that provided the template for later writers. The authors, Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, were not the first to do this, but they were the most influential. In turn, they explicitly cite the weird fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and the Arthur Machen as providing the framework through which they approached, interpreted, and understood fringe ideas. Lovecraft provided the vessel that transmitted the ancient aliens of Theosophy to the authors, and his key contribution was to strip the idea of the quasi-spiritual, grounding the idea in archaeology and history and making it seem more plausible and scientific—something that mid-century ancient astronaut books tried to emulate, though Ancient Aliens does not. Again, Lovecraft was not the only person to do this—Agrest, for example, took a similar (nonfiction) approach—but Lovecraft was Pauwels’s and Bergier’s entry point. Bergier, for example, claimed (probably falsely) to have been corresponding with Lovecraft about weird fiction and ancient astronauts in the 1930s.
Thus, by working backward we can see that out of many possible paths that the ancient astronaut theory could have taken, one stood out. It is because one succeeded where the others failed that I and others have placed greater weight on it than on the competing versions that failed to ignite the same public fascination.
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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