In 1974, ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken sat down with the science writer Timothy Ferris for three days of interviews for Playboy magazine. This was one of the rare occasions when an ancient astronaut theorist submitted to questioning from a well-informed skeptic, something that almost never happens today. I am reviewing this extraordinary interview in segments. This is part two.
Last time, I reviewed the editor’s note at the beginning of the von Däniken interview. Today I’ll start in on the actual question and answer section itself.
What is immediately striking about Ferris’ interview with Erich von Däniken is just how deep it is. Ferris, then a 30 year old professor of English and Rolling Stone contributing editor, was extraordinarily well-informed, and it is impossible to imagine an ancient astronaut theorist consenting to three days of contentious questioning today. For example, I know for a fact that one of the leading ancient astronaut theorists, whom loyal readers would immediately recognize if a confidentiality agreement did not prevent me from revealing his name, demands before interviews that journalists sign an agreement promising to depict him only in a “positive light.” In 1974, ancient astronaut theorists did not have that power or the sycophantic alternative media to allow them to bypass more critical sources.
For the past three decades or so, von Däniken has deflected criticism by arguing that he never makes direct claims about the aliens; he is merely asking questions. But in 1974, he had not yet developed this disingenuous defense. Instead, he boldly states his views:
“I say in my books not only that we have been visited from outer space in ancient times but that those visitors had sexual intercourse with our ancestors” (p.52).
Von Däniken then reveals his ignorance of genetics by suggesting that sex with aliens produces viable, mutant offspring that were “artificially” mutated to create intelligent beings. The implication, of course, is that aliens like having sex with unintelligent bimbo apes, which also raises the question of why it is only male aliens impregnating female cave people…
But the key takeaway here is that von Däniken stated without equivocation specific claims.
Following this exchange, Ferris makes a rare misstep. Instead of asking about the genetic impossibility of this fantasy, he instead suggests that von Däniken’s Catholic upbringing and poor relationship with his father led him to invent heroic, fatherly aliens. Von Däniken rightly notes that his motives for supporting the ancient astronaut theory are irrelevant to its truth.
So, Ferris, asks, what is the best evidence the theory is true? Von Däniken replies that the single best piece of evidence is the coffin lid of Lord Pacal of Palenque (608-638 CE), the Mayan ruler whose tomb depicts him descending into the underworld in a pose ancient astronaut theorists argued as recently as Friday is the single best evidence that the Maya had space rockets. Ferris smartly asks why, if this image is a rocket, is a bird sitting in the ship. “Oh, I don’t know,” von Däniken responds. “Perhaps it represents flight, you know?” (p. 52). Again, von Däniken reveals slipshod thinking: One element of the relief is to be taken symbolically, but everything else is the literal depiction of a launching space capsule? What he saw as flames and smoke coming out of the craft wasn't enough of an indication of flight?
Ferris asks von Däniken when he became convinced the ancient astronaut theory was true, and surprisingly von Däniken admits that he was not convinced when he wrote Chariots of the Gods? or even Gods from Outer Space. Only in 1970, he said, did he decide it was all true, and only then because of “mythology and ancient religion,” which he could not help but interpret as encoding impossible information—information, of course, that his own 1970-era knowledge allowed him to read into ambiguous and vague texts.
Next time: Von Däniken explains why the aliens left no artifacts on earth, and Ferris skillfully reveals the shallowness of von Däniken’s “knowledge” of the ancient texts he claims as evidence.
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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