Earlier in the week, I wrote about the way that alternative history proponents have taken me to task for failing to be sufficiently polite and deferential to their position. So, I thought that it would be a useful exercise to turn over at least part of this review of Ancient Aliens S05E11 “The Viking Gods” to a serious examination of the intellectual underpinnings of the program’s ideas. Then I laughed because this is almost impossible to do.
But I’ll give it a try anyway.
The conceit of this branch of the ancient astronaut hypothesis—as we must call it for, as its practitioners must recognize, it does not have falsifiable hypotheses that would rise to the level of theory, nor the confirmed tests to bolster such a theory—is that the ancient gods of the pre-Christian peoples of northern Europe were extraterrestrial beings. Specifically, the show’s talking heads assert that extraterrestrial beings by the names of Odin, Thor, and Freyr visited Scandinavia between 750 and 1100 CE and guided the migration and conquests of the Vikings. This poses several insuperable challenges.
The first challenge is rather literal. In order to demonstrate that the Norse gods were extraterrestrials, ancient astronaut “theorists” (AATs) ask us to accept that the written sources we have for their actions, primarily the Poetic (Elder) Edda and the Prose (Younger) Edda, cited explicitly in the show, are accurate reports of the actions of the gods, with technology misunderstood as magic. In order to do so, AATs posit that such texts are accurate and can be accepted at face value. In so doing, however, this assumption produces an insurmountable contradiction. Snorri Sturluson, the author of the Prose Edda, writes in his preface to that work that the gods were not gods at all but regular human beings, and the mistaken assumption that mere men could be gods was caused by Zoroaster, who chose to be worshipped as Baal: “From him arose the error of idolatry; and when he was worshiped he was called Baal; we call him Bel; he also had many other names. But as the names increased in number, so was truth lost; and from this first error every following man worshiped his head-master, beasts or birds, the air and the heavenly bodies, and various lifeless things, until the error at length spread over the whole world.”
Worse, Snorri said the Norse gods were not gods at all but earthly kings—of the Roman period:
And so much power accompanied these men for many ages after, that when Pompey, a Roman chieftain, harried in the east region, Odin fled out of Asia and hither to the north country, and then he gave to himself and his men their names, and said that Priamos had hight Odin and his queen Frigg, and from this the realm afterward took its name and was called Frigia where the burg stood. And whether Odin said 44 this of himself out of pride, or that it was wrought by the changing of tongues; nevertheless many wise men have regarded it a true saying, and for a long time after every man who was a great chieftain followed his example.
Snorri was being cute, I guess, in making Phrygia in Asia Minor the homeland of Frigg!
By what criteria are AATs accepting certain facets of the Eddas as true but rejecting the contradictory aspects of them as false, if not the principle of convenience? A serious investigation of the Norse gods as aliens must explain and account for such discrepancies in a consistent way—not simply ignore or wish away a foundational flaw in the proposed idea. After all, if you wish to say Snorri was wrong in places because he was Christianizing and rationalizing myths, by what right can we assert he was right in other places without any other evidence in support of this?
The second challenge is more theoretical, but it derives from a web of linguistic, iconographic, and comparative mythology facts that directly challenge the idea that the Norse gods were independent creatures who sprang into being at a fixed time, c. 750 CE.
Let’s take the linguistic problem first. The Norse gods do not have extraterrestrial names, and in fact they share names with analogs in the Indo-European family of languages. Are we to consider the Norse Odin, the Germanic Wotan, the Old English Woden, the Old Saxon Wodan, and the Proto-Germanic Wodanaz the same alien or a different one in each time and place? If the latter, how are we to explain the presence of an identical one-eyed, bearded war monger in each place? If the former, we have another problem.
If we are to concede that all the variants of Odin descend from one common source, we must therefore recognize that others among the Norse gods are not Norse at all. Among the gods was Týr, who is also called Teiws in Gothic, Tiw in Old English (hence Tuesday), and Ziu in Old High German. His name is cognate with Zeus among the Greeks, Jupiter (Iuppiter = (D)eus pater, or “Father Deus”) among the Romans, and Dyaus among the Vedic Indians. This Dyaus can be traced back to the dawn of Indo-European culture.
So, if we can safely assume all of the Odins are one, then all of the versions of Zeus-Týr must also be one, in which case the ancient astronaut hypothesis fails to account for the “presence” of the same extraterrestrial beings in widely removed times and places, manifesting with different appearances and weaponry, unless, of course, special pleading argues that a very busy, nearly immortal alien (or set of aliens) ran about impersonating Zeus everywhere or that all the gods are remembrances of a singular alien encounter in the Indo-European heartland circa 4500 BCE. While this may be possible at a theoretical level, it is not the specific claim proposed by AATs, who have instead suggested that each culture’s gods were independent observations of aliens and can therefore be analyzed at the simplest level by taking ancient myths literally as events that occurred in the time and place stated in the myth or text.
You might therefore reasonably propose that the same aliens showed up and called themselves by the same names in many places, though only in the Indo-European linguistic area. (Obviously, the aliens chose different names for Africa, Asia, and the Americas—because that’s how aliens roll.) That’s where the second and third problems come into play. Iconographic and comparative mythology evidence clearly show that the Indo-European pantheons are closely related and derive from an original, older source. To look just for a moment at Týr, we see that he sacrificed his right hand as a direct result of telling a necessary lie. The same story, including the necessary lie, appears among the Romans in the pseudo-historical myth of Scaevola (“Lefty”) and again among the Persians. Did the aliens simply take their own “ancient text” (Matthew 5:30) literally and lop off right hands at will whenever they fibbed?
The similarities among Indo-European mythologies are so obvious and so pronounced that scholars have spent the better part of two centuries cataloging and analyzing them. Whole incidents from the Iliad can be found in the Mahabharata, and the same magic cauldrons can be found among the Celts and the Greeks. The sun is a wheel or a god driving a wheeled chariot wherever the Indo-European myths spread. Even the famous “Hamlet’s Mill” of alternative history fame can be found grinding away in both Scandinavia and India. In both detail and in structure and function, the Indo-European myths are very obviously related and can be traced to older sources. In my line of classic reprints, I republished Curiosities of Indo-European Tradition and Folk-lore by Walter Keating Kelly, one of the best and most readable introductory guides to these similarities, all the more amazing for being 150 years old.
So how are AATs to explain the clear and compelling evidence that these myths are related? There are only two ways: First, claim that the same aliens reenacted the same events over and over among every new people they found, but only within the Indo-European culture zone, adopting completely different methods and actions outside of this. Second, claim that all the events are memories of an original alien encounter c. 4500 BCE. Neither is particularly satisfying, though either could, theoretically, be defensible, so long as you are willing to employ special pleading about the nature of the aliens or abandon any claim that the aliens were in the Indo-European areas after 4500 BCE, when the various pantheons began to diverge.
But that isn’t what Ancient Aliens claims. Instead, it simply ignores all of these epistemological problems and declares the Norse gods to be aliens with advanced technological weapons who were running the Viking’s battle plans from 750 CE to 1100 CE.
I hope that this explanation of the intellectual foundation for my disapproval of the AATs incoherent and slipshod ideas about the Norse gods is sufficiently rigorous to justify the contempt I have for what follows. How much of the foregoing discussion do you think any of the AATs like Giorgio Tsoukalos, David Childress, Jason Martell, or William Henry are familiar with? Do you think any of them care about—or are even aware of—the actual scholarship on Indo-European mythology?
The blue title card is back again in what is apparently the permanent new opening for the show. So, what do you think I should do to review Ancient Aliens’ claims that the Vikings had an “advanced” civilization that no one can explain without alien help? The Vikings lived in the early medieval period (750-1100 CE), and that’s a problem since the aliens apparently royally screwed over the peoples of the former Roman Empire, sending them into a spiral of warfare, poverty, and ignorance, while bequeathing boats to the Vikings. Did the aliens simply stop caring about the Mediterranean, or was it simply too hot and they needed a cooler climate to keep their cold fusion engines running?
The narrator asks why the Norse “hieroglyphs” didn’t survive, which is hysterically funny since we all know from America Unearthed that the Norse used runes, not hieroglyphs, and we have hundreds of runic inscriptions from across Northern Europe. To be fair, very few deal with the gods, but this is no different from the case of the Mycenaean Greeks and Linear B.
The show discusses Viking culture and its individualism, which is irrelevant to the alien encounter. It then describes Viking ventures to Eastern Europe, though the Scandinavian lecturer is wrong to state that the Vikings “invented ships,” which isn’t even true for Northern Europe. I presume this line was clipped from a longer and more accurate discussion. At any rate, the Vikings are praised for reaching Newfoundland—with nary a word about the Kensington Rune Stone or Henry Sinclair! Geologist Robert Schoch—whose area of specialization, we recall, is Sphinx weathering—pops up to describe how archaeological investigation at L’anse-aux-Meadows proved that the Norse actually came to America, unwittingly explaining why the ancient astronaut theory and America Unearth are wrong, wrong, wrong since no comparable evidence for aliens or a cult of medieval American Templar heretics has ever been found.
I get that this is a tie-in episode to History’s Vikings drama series, but nearly ten minutes into the show, there isn’t any sign of aliens. Jason Martell, however, is baffled by how the Vikings could have built ships that actually work on water, and he claims that the Vikings are unlike any other culture of their time, which is a ridiculous lie since they merely developed forms well-known to the related Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, and related peoples, with whom they shared faith, art, and technology. Last week I insulted Martell by calling him dim, so this week let me be more specific: Martell claims to be an expert in “ancient Sumerian culture” despite never having studied it and admitting that he has never personally viewed a genuine Sumerian artifact. He states that he has derived his knowledge of Sumer from Zecharia Sitchin, the well known fabricator of false translations, and he claims that his “research” should be respected because he has “corresponded with top NASA scientists” about Nibiru. This only means that he sent an email and they wrote back to tell him he was wrong. Voila: Correspondence!
Let me try to say this next bit politely, although it causes me pain. “Investigative mythologist” William Henry, who believes that, in a variation on Doctor Who, telephone booths are intergalactic wormhole gateways for Jesus, lies through his teeth claiming that the Greeks and Maya never ventured far from their homelands while Vikings went far and wide. The Maya traveled into the Caribbean, and the Greeks ventured as far afield as the Pillars of Hercules to the West and India to the East—where, I might add, they founded a kingdom longer-lasting than the Viking settlement at Newfoundland. The Egyptians, also cited by Henry as homebodies, similarly traveled down the east coast of Africa. He leaves out the Phoenicians, who may well have reached Britain, and the Carthaginians, who traveled to sub-Saharan Africa. In sum, William Henry knows not whereof he speaks, and the established facts of archaeology demonstrate that he makes things up.
After the first commercial, we hear that a Viking raid on an English monastery in 793 occurred during a storm, and AATs claim that this was alien doing. This leads to a discussion of the gods, which Karl E. H. Seigfried shows up to explicate. I thought that Seigfried was a credentialed scholar of Norse myth, but as it happens he’s actually a jazz musician with an undergraduate degree in literature and a doctorate in double bass performance. He teaches a course on Norse mythology at a private Lutheran college and blogs about Norse mythology online.
The narrator explains that our knowledge of the Norse gods comes from the Eddas, but Giorgio Tsoukalos—who I will remind you is a qualified expert only in bodybuilding promotion and sports communication—doesn’t think much beyond taking it literally, referring to “the Norse” rather than Snorri in referencing material from his text. It’s dishonest of the show to depict the “nine realms” of Norse myth as spherical planets when they were considered superimposed planes connected by a world tree, just like every other traditional cosmos. The producers induce bias into the discussion by making the nine realms into a model of our solar system when the ancient texts and depictions show no such thing.
Overall, though, I am surprised that so much of this episode is given over to non-AAT scholars presenting actual material about the gods. Of course AATs pop up to spin this material, but this is much less wacky than usual episodes.
Odin’s two ravens, who spy on all the events of the earth, are likened to Obama’s drone program by David Childress, whose credentials for discussing this are (a) his lies about being an archaeologist, (b) his serial self-plagiarism, and (c) his admission to stealing other people’s work without acknowledgement, permission, or payment. Philip Coppens, whose is still dead, questions whether the Norse, in calling the ravens birds, really meant what they said—thought this, of course, undercuts the very essence of taking texts literally. Odin’s high throne, from which he observes the cosmos, is likened again to “advanced extraterrestrial technology,” with Jason Martell suggesting it’s a “captain’s chair in a spaceship above the earth,” though one might note that actual astronauts in spaceships can see absolutely nothing on the earth below at the human level (not even the Great Wall of China) because it is too small, negating the literal reading of this text as a spaceship since this reading prevents us from accepting any part of the text as true except that Odin could sit in a chair.
Thor is called to service next, with his goat-drawn chariot taken for a UFO. I’m not sure, though, why they left out the fact that Thor eats his goats each night and resurrects their corpses each day, as Snorri describes. Is this not technological enough for them? His goat feast is not discussed, but instead Thor’s magic belt is claimed by Philip Coppens and Jason Martell to be an exoskeleton, though once again the text itself belies the claim since the belt quite literally has nothing whatsoever to do with covering his arms or legs. It is a belt, and it goes around his waist. How do we know this? Here’s the whole of it, from Snorri: “The second treasure he possesses is Megingjarder (belt of strength); when he girds himself with it his strength is doubled.” That’s it, the entire reference to it in Norse myth. The utter childishness of these claims—and the childlike glee with which they are put forward—makes me sad.
After the next commercial we talk about the prosperity god Freyr and the giant Loki, again summarizing the standard mythology with the help of several conventional experts. We hear about a magic ship, Skíðblaðnir, that folds up small enough to fit in one’s pocket, which I would easily view as a folktale motif, but Ancient Aliens doesn’t even bother to claim this is a technological wonder but rather a spaceship observed growing smaller as it vanished into the sky. Sigh. This wasn’t even worth the trouble of describing. As you can see from Snorri, a literal reading of the text would suggest something different than a spaceship:
Skidbladner is the best of ships, and is made with the finest workmanship; but Naglfare, which is in Muspel, is the largest. Some dwarfs, the sons of Ivalde, made Skidbladner and gave it to Frey. It is so large that all the asas, with their weapons and war-gear, can find room on board it, and as soon as the sails are hoisted it has fair wind, no matter whither it is going. When it is not wanted for a voyage, it is made of so many pieces and with so much skill, that Frey can fold it together like a napkin and carry it in his pocket.
Now how many spaceships have sails?
David Childress describes the Norse dwarf craftsmen, the sons of Ivaldi, who forged the gods’ weapons, as alien beings but they are exactly equivalent to Vulcan, Hephaestus, and the Cabiri—part of a well-known system of mythologizing blacksmiths as supernatural Others due to their seemingly miraculous power of turning lumps of metal into objects. This is found across the Old World, often with reference to dwarves (possibly related to the lameness, stooped posture, and mutilations associated with blacksmiths), but Childress and Coppens simply declare them the Grey aliens, who somehow sit around forging weapons with hammers and anvils despite venturing across time and space to reach Earth.
Norse dwarves, or Dvergr, were only described as small in the thirteenth century CE, a thousand years too late to be relevant. The only Scandinavian texts the show cites, the Eddas, clearly describe the Dvergr as of human size (Gylfaginning 14 and Reginsmál 1). (The only other text cited in the hour, by Adam of Bremen, seems to have been researched from its appearance on Odin’s Wikipedia page.) Worse, the texts clearly state that these are not space creatures but beings that live “in earth and in stone.” It is only in the High Middle Ages, when the Dvergr become literary characters, that they merge with tales of fairies and Little People to take on small stature.
Following this, we hear the idea that the Rainbow Bridge to Asgard (Bifrost) was somehow a wormhole to another planet. But Snorri makes clear that it is a structure, not a hole: “It has three colors, is very strong, and is made with more craft and skill than other structures.” I think it’s fairly obvious that many ancient people—primarily Indo-European, but also the Japanese and Siberian shamans—thought of rainbows as a bridge to heaven. The Greeks thought of rainbows as the path that the divine messenger Iris used to travel down to the earth, and even in the Bible God uses a rainbow as the sign of His covenant linking Him to Noah and humankind below (Genesis 9:13). A glance at a rainbow in the sky, arching up high into the sky, is sufficient to explain this image without reference to invisible wormholes.
After the next commercial we talk about Odin’s magic spear, Gungnir, which Snorri says “never misses its mark.” A magic spear that hits its target need not be explained as a “Cruise missile” as Childress claims, nor is it necessary to call it “advanced weaponry” as Coppens suggests. Instead it is wish-fulfillment: a spear that does what every hunter hopes—hits its target every time. Just as the gods always impregnate women with every sexual encounter, so too must they hit every target when they throw their spears. I suppose it could be a “smart bomb” (though it never explodes—and in fact awaits the end of time to be used), but it’s stretching it to suggest that people who relied heavily on hunting were incapable of imagining hunting magic.
Similarly, Thor’s hammer Mjölnir is claimed to be a kinetic weapon capable of destroying mountains. Philip Coppens really doesn’t think much of poetic imagery. The name actually is cognate to several Indo-European words related to lightning, hammers, and mills. It is the symbol of Thor’s command of lightning and thunder, and it is related to Hamlet’s Mill, the great churning of the heavens that moves the stars through the sky and sends bolts of lightning to the earth. Thor’s lightning was said to impregnate the rowan (mountain-ash) with power, making their branches into divining rods. Would Tsoukalos like to explain how using tree branches to find underground metal is “really” an alien plan to put nanobots in the tree branches to turn them into high tech metal detectors? By what right does Tsoukalos propose that we accept the claim that Thor’s hammer is an alien weapon on the strength of a myth while rejecting Thor’s magic wish-giving tree branches?
After the final break, Jason Martell tries to tell us that the Vikings buried their dead in boats because they were “conveyances” to the stars, i.e. spaceships. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that the Vikings used ships in life and therefore honored the dead with the tools they used in life. Today the Chinese—also cited as using boats to send souls to space—burn cardboard representations of cars, houses, and money to supply the dead with the things they need for the afterlife. Surely the Viking ship burials are no less symbolic.
Tsoukalos, having read too many Marvel comics, suggests that Valhalla—Odin’s hall—is a space station, and Martell agrees by suggesting that the hall is a “ship” and “metallic.” I imagine he thinks that the descriptions of the gold and precious metals that line the hall—wealth—is somehow connected to being made of metal. I’m not sure how they imagine that a space station has 540 doors, as Valhalla does. Worse, Snorri makes plain that Valhalla stands in the shade of a large tree on which a goat feeds: “A she-goat, by name Heidrun, stands up in Valhal and bites the leaves off the branches of that famous tree called Lerad. From her teats runs so much mead that she fills every day a vessel in the hall from which the horns are filled, and which is so large that all the einherjes get all the drink they want out of it.” A hart stands over Valhalla, also eating the tree, and from his antlers drip the waters that form earth’s great rivers. How do we square this with a space station? Last I checked, space stations don’t squirt enough water to fill all earth’s rivers.
I am surprised that the show left out the Valkyries. Surely having women descending from the sky in their chariots to abduct the souls of dead warriors and ferry them into the sky is a closer analog to alien abduction than what Tsoukalos claims—that burning ship burials were meant to replicate the afterburners of rocket ships, a patently ridiculous claim leftover from the Apollo era. I thought aliens used anti-gravity and wormholes—consistency, people!
Coppens suggests that the Vikings traveled across the oceans in hope of finding the gods, another impossibility since we know from votive offerings and inscriptions that the believers in the cult of Thor felt he was immanent and always with them.
Tsoukalos concludes the hour by saying that the Viking gods “direct[ed] our history” in the Middle Ages by purposely leading the Vikings around Europe raping and pillaging. The aliens really have a thing for sexual misconduct, whether it be encouraging rape, impregnating women, or sodomizing abductees. But anyway, no one explains why the aliens stopped talking to the Franks, the Romans (Byzantines), the Muslims, and anyone else capable of producing written records. Surely the appearance of alien space ships and powerful aliens wielding kinetic weapons, Cruise missiles, and spy drones should have attracted the attention of an Adam of Bremen, a Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, etc. But those pesky aliens always manage to stay just a few steps away from anyone with quill and parchment, preferring to expose themselves only to people without literature, to be remembered only centuries later, in obscure stories.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.