Since I launched JasonColavito.com in 2010, I have written about one million words on this website across the blog, articles, eBooks, and other odds and ends. Of those one million words, about 60,000 (6%) are devoted to America Unearthed, which earned me frequent complaints that I am “obsessed” with the show. By contrast, over the past three years I’ve probably written about 500,000 or more words about ancient astronauts, with more than 100,000 of them specifically about Ancient Aliens. (These are very rough estimates; some blog posts, for example, cover multiple topics.) I know for a fact that between June 2011 and June 2012, when I collected my work as my Critical Companion to Ancient Aliens, I wrote no fewer than 40,000 words on Ancient Aliens, and I’ve easily matched that in the time since. Add to that the 100,000 words on ancient astronauts contained in my Cult of Alien Gods, and the total begins to dwarf anything I’ve devoted to America Unearthed.
I bring this up because taking stock is the theme of the return episode of Ancient Aliens, S05E10 “The Von Däniken Legacy,” which takes as its focus the man who put the ancient astronaut idea into the pop culture mainstream through dishonesty and diabolical luck. It’s good, I guess, to have Ancient Aliens back, if only because its brand of fact-free lunacy is an utter delight compared to the self-serious charlatanism of America Unearthed.
I wasn’t sure whether H2’s current companion for Ancient Aliens, America’s Book of Secrets, would be any better than either, but I’ll review that separately because America’s Book of Secrets is covering ancient astronauts this week, part of a two-hour love-fest between H2, Prometheus Entertainment, and Erich von Däniken. It’s hard to remember because the past four months spent examining medieval mysteries that I actually got into this for ancient mysteries.
In The Cult of Alien Gods I tell much of the story of how Erich von Däniken developed his version of the ancient astronaut “theory,” and since 2005, I’ve filled in some additional details. The story is not terribly complicated, but it’s one Ancient Aliens doesn’t want you to know.
Erich Anton Paul von Däniken was born in Switzerland in 1935, raised a strict Catholic, and in Catholic school developed an interest in UFOs, like many youths in the early 1950s. He had a criminal record. He was convicted of theft when he was 19, and he left school to become a hotelier. He was convicted of embezzlement after leaving that job. He took another hotel position, and he stole money there, too, by falsifying records in order to obtain tens of thousands in fraudulent loans to finance his interest in space aliens and what the court later called his “playboy lifestyle.” The court psychiatrist declared him a pathological liar. Eventually, he would be convicted of embezzlement and fraud yet again, serving a year in prison.
In 1960, two French authors who were interested in the occult, Nazis, UFOs, and H. P. Lovecraft put out a book called Morning of the Magicians in which they tried to show that Lovecraft’s vision of ancient astronauts could be correlated to the “occult” truths of Theosophy and the UFO movement. Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels put together the entire case for ancient astronauts as we currently know it—from the claims about ancient atom bombs to the claims about “impossibly” precise and heavy stone architecture. Their book inspired several by Robert Charroux, who presented Bergier’s and Pauwel’s discursive, disorganized ideas in a more popular and readable format.
In 1964, von Däniken simply appropriated this material wholesale for a magazine article, and on the strength of the magazine article, he received a book deal for what became Chariots of the Gods. In his zeal to fill the book, he in places came close enough to plagiarizing Pauwels, Bergier, and Charroux that lawyers convinced the publisher to add those authors to the book’s bibliography, and in the sequels von Däniken specifically credited them by name, as if to assuage hurt feelings. Von Däniken went a step beyond his sources, though, in deciding that Jesus was a space alien along with the pagan gods.
The publisher, Econ, found the manuscript less than satisfactory, and they hired a screenwriter, Wilhelm Roggersdorf, to punch it up. En route they cut out claims about Jesus’ alien origin, and von Däniken forever after asserted Jesus was the exception to the alien rule. Roggersdorf’s version of Chariots met with great success, but much to von Däniken’s dismay, the contract he had signed with Econ stripped him of most of the profits from the book. What money he did make went to pay off debts from the embezzlement and fraud; so, with little choice but to forge ahead, while serving his prison sentence in 1970, von Däniken wrote Gods from Outer Space, a sequel he would sell to publishers worldwide on more favorable terms, and the foundation for his future financial success. After about 25 books (of which I’ve read half, all of the non-fiction volumes translated into English), von Däniken was a millionaire several times over.
His success afforded him the luxury of admitting that he lied, cheated, and committed fraud whenever and wherever it suited him. He told Playboy that he had lied about seeing a golden library of alien texts in Ecuador, and he admitted to others that he fabricated evidence to make his ideas seem more solid. All was fair, he said, when fighting “a war we have to win” to overturn modern science. He saw his ancient astronaut theory as a way of promoting traditional moral values and combating socialism and communism. Specifically, he told Pres. Gerald Ford that socialism was the greatest danger facing the world and conservatives needed to embrace UFO believers to win elections, and he later wrote that the aliens would punish the sexually unchaste as well as uppity feminists when they returned in 2012. (They didn’t.)
My version of Erich von Däniken’s life is certainly a far cry from the “facts” Ancient Aliens provides. The show wrongly calls von Däniken’s ideas “scientific” and claims that he threatened to upend the world thanks to his “spiritual journey”—part of a continuing narrative that casts ancient astronauts as part of a revitalization of traditional religious beliefs. Biased words like “daring” and “groundbreaking” litter the language of the program and clue us in that no one has even a moment’s thought about making a fair documentary—a particularly striking omission when comparing Ancient Aliens to the more balanced (but still deceptive) presentation on America’s Book of Secrets, from the same executive producer, an hour later.
The blue title card returns this week, and we open in Minneapolis in October of 2012, when Erich von Däniken spoke at the Paradigm Symposium. I breathed a sigh of relief that this time they left me out of the list of skeptics whose newspaper clippings are shown—though my relief would be short-lived once America’s Book of Secrets came on.
Several speakers relate von Däniken’s idea to the space age (his fiery chariots were obviously inspired by Apollo-era rockets, not modern “anti-gravity” UFOs), and Mike Bara seems confused about the timeline, thinking that the moon landing happened before Chariots. Several other pundits talk about how the book influenced them. George Noory of Coast to Coast AM said he was “mesmerized” by the “phenomenal” book, but even the narrator is forced to note that von Däniken never really claimed anything in Chariots but instead relied on rhetorical questions to make suggestions and implications. Weirdly, even Ancient Aliens’ propaganda can’t quite manage to get past the problems with von Däniken’s books. David Childress talks about how much he loves the way von Däniken talked about how angels were aliens because it really helped restore his faith in the truth of religious texts, or something like that.
Von Däniken appears on screen to blast the media for his 238 rhetorical questions in Chariots (yes, that’s a real number), and von Däniken uses the same old defense: Nothing he said is a factual claim, only a question for which he cannot be held responsible. Is von Däniken a charlatan and a fraud? That’s not a libelous statement; I’m just asking. Jason Martell praises von Däniken for “challenging academia,” but he’s too dim to really understand what he’s talking about and mistakes rhetoric for research.
Von Däniken describes his Catholic upbringing and notes how he related the Bible to then-current space technology. A priest told von Däniken about the Book of Enoch, in which Enoch is carried to heaven in a fiery chariot (like the one the sun god uses), and von Däniken says that Ezekiel’s vision was also a UFO. Then we talk about von Däniken’s trip to the pyramids, where he is stupefied by his inability to understand how mere humans could stack stones one atop the next. But we’ve heard all this before, and I have no intention of reviewing each piece of long-debunked evidence afresh. The show is having trouble finding new ways of reviewing the same few ideas over and over season after season, but it is adamant that every episode needs to repeat material from the first two or three seasons point-for-point.
“Erich wasn’t completely rejecting religion,” Childress says, praising him for keeping “universal truths” while looking at religion differently. Von Däniken talks of his love for God, and it’s pretty clear that, as I’ve argued for ages, the ancient astronaut theory is merely an effort to take the Bible literally in an era that can’t quite countenance miracles. It’s an attempt to spiritualize science and restore the power of the god(s).
Von Däniken repeats the false claim that the Great Pyramid was completely anonymous—it’s not; graffiti found in the relieving chambers have Khufu’s name on it. Philip Coppens is exhumed to try to course-correct von Däniken and walk him back from claiming the aliens built the pyramids. (This long after his death, isn’t it getting ghoulish?) Although this was one of von Däniken’s original “questions” because he believed scholars were dishonest in proclaiming the pyramid a human-built tomb (“Anyone who can believe that explanation is welcome to it,” he wrote in Chariots), today under the guidance of Tsoukalos the new dogma is that the aliens merely provided the plans. Tsoukalos in fact appears to tell us that the “ancient Egyptian texts” tell us that the Egyptians built the pyramids with the help of the “guardians of the sky.”
This is false on multiple counts, as I have previously reviewed: First, the “text” is not “ancient Egyptian” but rather the Al-Khitat of Al-Maqrizi, of 1400 CE. Second, the sky guardians, or angels, taught magic; according to Al-Maqrizi, they had nothing to do with the planning or building of the pyramids, which was a human action: “King ’Adim, son of Naqtarim, was a violent and proud prince, tall in stature. It was he who ordered the rocks cut to make the pyramids, as had been done by the ancients. In his time there lived two angels cast out of heaven, and who lived in the well of Aftarah; these two angels taught magic to the Egyptians, and it is said that ’Adim, the son of El-Budchir, learned most of their sciences, after which the two angels went to Babel.” Von Däniken screwed this up in his Odyssey of the Gods (1999), where he proclaimed the text “ancient” Egyptian ((2000 English trans., p.74), and Tsoukalos took over the idea without question.
A bunch of Indian stuff is discussed, but we’ve already talked about this in the season premiere for season five, so I have nothing more to add here except to note that Coppens is a lying liar when he claims practically “no one” was studying Indian culture before von Däniken. For more than FOUR HUNDRED YEARS scholars from Europe have been studying India. I’ve also covered vimanas before, and they are just not what the idiots think they were.
Returning to the Book of Enoch, von Däniken lies in calling the Watchers the “guardians of the sky,” and then he delivers his “horny alien” hypothesis, whereby aliens somehow defy Darwinian evolution by being able to mate with human females, genetics be damned. This, von Däniken claims, represents the moment when humans became intelligent. “We went from munching bananas in a cave to essentially building civilizations,” Tsoukalos said, unconsciously mimicking the scoffing arguments of creationists who have the same ideas but a different non-human intelligence sparking the creation.
As we lurch toward the halfway point, Ancient Aliens chooses to ignore von Däniken’s legal trouble, his plagiarism problems, and other salient facts about his career. Instead, some idiotic speculation about millions of years of alien terraforming of earth—which I can dismiss as idiotic because the show does not pretend to defend the claim with even a superficial appeal to evidence—leads us toward the second half of the show and South America.
In South America we review the mysteries of Puma Punku, to which Ancient Aliens had already devoted an entire hour. Jason Martell tells us that the stones of the site were “liquefied,” which any geologist can confirm they were not. As for the rest of the claims, we’ve been through all of them before. Tsoukalos and von Däniken cite local legends that the site was built by gods as evidence that the aliens set up the site overnight. By that evidence, we must conclude that Mycenae and Tiryns were built by Cyclopes (as the Greeks believed), and that the Roman ruins of Germany were built by the devil (as medieval Germans said). Modern legends imply nothing about ancient beliefs.
In Mexico, von Däniken relates his “realization” that visitors (which he pronounces as “whizzitors”) could be seen in all the Mexican gods, and in a bit of leftover colonialism von Däniken asserts that the Maya were not responsible for the appearance of the shadowy snake image on the Castillo temple at Chichen Itza but rather it was evidence of alien planning. The Maya knew the stars, so therefore, being brown, they could not have gained this information on their own. He is untroubled that modern white people gained such knowledge themselves.
David Childress reviews Lord Pacal’s tomb, which von Däniken declared an image of a man in a rocket ship. (It’s really an image of Pacal in the underworld in standard Maya iconography.) This is funny because Childress has flipped on this several times. In the 1990s, he thought it was bunk, and last year he endorsed it wholeheartedly. Here he is in 1992: “It was a bizarre scene, though von Däniken’s explanation didn’t quite make sense to me. The man was barefoot and wore no shirt, a typical dress for the Maya, but is this how one dresses when one is in one’s space ship? … it is unlikely that any sort of rocket power was ever used in the past or will ever be used in the future by visiting astronauts …” And then last year on Ancient Aliens: “Lord Pacal’s sarcophagus was his spaceship. He’s the original rocket man.” Now, he’s ambiguous about it again, saying only that some people “had to agree” but refusing to agree with it himself.
So, as we move into the final quarter of the show, this episode of Ancient Aliens reveals itself to be yet another disguised rerun, rehashing the same tired old ideas again and again.
It seems that von Däniken has been reading (or having read to him) my blog, since he is seen specifically expressing his displeasure with the idea that his ideas could be a “new religion,” and he says he won’t countenance it. He apparently never met Raël, who did just that, worshipping ancient aliens from the Bible. And of course the very next voices heard immediately start talking about spirituality and paradigm shifts and the longing for spiritual ideas. It’s not that ancient aliens are a new religion, but rather an attempt to revitalize old religious ideas with superficial appeals to science.
David Childress credits von Däniken for inspiring him, and Childress expresses doubt about von Däniken’s conclusions. “Don’t just take my word for it,” Childress paraphrases von Däniken. I didn’t, but of course when I don’t take his word for it, that’s not what they meant. Philip Coppens concurs that von Däniken inspired him, too. Robert Bauval professes his great respect and seems to be giving up his 1990s pose of pretending that he had no love for ancient astronauts. He claims tonight that this changed for him “recently,” but the fact that his 1994 book The Orion Mystery credits the ancient astronaut theory (in the form of Robert Temple’s Sirius Mystery) for inspiring his own career in alternative archaeology, we know that isn’t true.
Giorgio Tsoukalos says that his grandmother’s dinner table conversation about Atlantis and ancient astronauts in Switzerland inspired him to follow in von Däniken’s footsteps, but he leaves out his efforts to enter von Däniken’s orbit and his stint as von Däniken’s official English-language spokesperson back when Tsoukalos was a full-time bodybuilding promoter.
“The divine is permeated throughout the entire universe,” Tsoukalos says, and von Däniken’s own disclaimer about starting a new religion seems to have been forgotten after just five minutes.
The narrator scoffs at the “hallowed halls of academia” and suggests instead that “ordinary” people are von Däniken’s true audience and the people who hold the power to change history. This even involves “ordinary” believers in ancient astronauts questioning von von Däniken himself! Bob Blaskiewicz, a skeptic of my acquaintance, is seen questioning von Däniken at the Paradigm Symposium, and the show seems unaware that he is not a believer. At any rate, the message is exactly what I have been talking about for years now: Alternative believers truly feel that academic elites are an evil menace restricting access to truth to preserve their power and privilege. These same believers would never question whether mechanics or plumbers or architects are hoarding knowledge (“alternative architecture” anyone?), but there is a deep-seated anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism that manifests in a hostility to anyone who seems to offer specialized knowledge that requires actual work and effort to gain.
We conclude with a paean to space travel, followed by Nick Redfern’s assertion that if there were nothing to ancient astronauts the idea would have died by now. The fact is that it did die, twice. Once in the early 1980s and then again in the 1990s. It was revived in the 1990s by bottom-feeding media and again today because of the History Channel and H2’s effort to make money off any old fringe theory from In Search of…
We finish with Blaskiewicz’s question asking von Däniken what he got wrong. The edited response ignores the question and instead tells us that scientists have tunnel vision. (The actual response he delivered at the forum was that he got only one thing wrong and otherwise is 100% right.) Von Däniken, in an interview, concludes the show by contrasting “two groups” of people, the religious and the scientific. He tells us that religion sees us as the crown of creation, while scientists see us as the crown of evolution—and he faults both views for suggesting that humans are placed above the gods, er, aliens. I’ll leave you to pick apart the absurd illogic of that statement and the profound misunderstanding of both religion and science that it implies. In the end, Von Däniken wants humanity to go back to the humble beginnings he saw in primitive religion, benighted children obedient to the authority of the gods—and those, like von Däniken, who claim to speak on their behalf. Obey the aliens, obey ancient astronaut theorists. Give us all your money. No, we’re not a new religion, just a very old one. Iä, Cthulhu fhtagn!
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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