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 three.
Timothy Ferris noticed that for all Erich von Däniken’s (EVD’s) claims, the Swiss author provides remarkably little hard evidence to support them. He asked EVD why the alien left nothing definitively extraterrestrial behind. The answer? According to EVD, the answer is three-fold: First, they did leave a monument, the Great Pyramid, which he claims has never been fully explored since no one has dug 500 feet below it to see if there is an underground section. Second, the aliens wouldn’t want to leave any really alien material behind since ignorant humans would just destroy it. And third, whatever they did leave behind is probably hidden away where we can’t find it, to keep it safe for the aliens upon their return.
Instead, the evidence of the aliens comes in the form of alien influence on mythology, since early humans were too dumb to understand science, though why the aliens would choose this rather convoluted way of sending their message is unclear. Why not, you know, educate humans and bring them up to the aliens’ (or at least our) technological and intellectual level? If the aliens had no qualms about masquerading as gods and teaching about the use of makeup and jewelry (1 Enoch 8:1), surely they ought to have set up a school or two to teach science. If China could advance from an agrarian society to an industrial powerhouse in only a few decades, surely the aliens could have performed a similar miracle at Palenque or Tiwanaku rather than wait hundreds or thousands of years on the off chance humans would develop an advanced culture before ignorance or random chance wiped out the species.
EVD insisted to Ferris, though, that mythology was the only place to look for real evidence of the aliens’ presence, selecting the Biblical book of Ezekiel (1:1-3:27) as a key exhibit. In that book the prophet Ezekiel recorded seeing a strange vision of God’s chariot, drawn by four-faced creatures, walking beside wheels within wheels. This, EVD claims, is really a description of a spaceship as seen by someone who doesn’t understand it. (One could equally claim EVD’s version is an analysis by someone who doesn’t understand religious imagery…)
Here, Ferris skillfully demolishes EVD’s pretentions to scholarship. He first asks EVD about the parts of Ezekiel he does not quote, the parts about how the four-faced creatures had faces resembling animals. How, he asks, can the aliens be humanoid if they are also cows and eagles? EVD takes out a picture of a Gemini space capsule and asks Ferris to imagine how a primitive person would describe it, but Ferris can’t see an eagle in the picture. “I don’t see it either,” EVD responds, refuting his own point (p. 56). He immediately changes tactics as soon as his first gambit fails, suggesting now that the aliens painted images of animals (!) on the sides of their spaceship, like the way WWII pilots painting Mickey Mouse on their planes (!!).
But here’s the fascinating part of the interview. Ferris asks EVD what he makes of other parts of Ezekiel—does he take them literally, too? He asks specifically about the valley of bones in which the corpses rise and walk again (Ezekiel 37:1-14). EVD is stumped: “I don’t remember this passage. […] As wild speculation, I could say maybe he saw a movie or something” (p. 56). Ferris then asks the killer question: Why does the alien in the spaceship tell Ezekiel repeatedly that he is God? “I have just the opposite recollection,” EVD replies, “that he did not say he was God. I guess it depends on the translation you use” (p. 57).
The two go back and forth on whether the Biblical text actually says God is God, with EVD arguing that the term used is “Lord,” not “God,” because the “Lord” is the “commander” of a spaceship. “I definitely do not think the commander of the spaceship said he was God. If he did, it would be proof to me that he was a liar.” The majority of translations, in fact, give Ezekiel 2:4 as quoting God as calling himself “the Lord GOD” or “Lord Jehovah/Yahweh.”
“So you’re saying,” Ferris asks, “that the text is letter-perfect when it describes the so-called spaceship but completely inaccurate when it records what the pilot had to say? Isn’t that an inconsistent position?”
EVD’s answer is another dodge: “I’m very sorry but theologians are in the same position” (p. 57). He then offers an irrelevant discussion of the problems of theology, which Ferris parries with the obvious point that EVD is not writing theology but supposedly science. EVD, apparently still not understanding the difference, counters by claiming theology would be a science if theologians would only embrace all religions. In his mind, science is simply another belief system, and fact and fantasy interchangeable, explaining much about his beliefs.
Next time: Is the ancient astronaut theory a religion? And EVD admits to faking evidence to make his story sound better.
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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