Since Philip Coppens (a.k.a. Filip Coppens) died last year, I’ve been loath to follow through on my original plan from last year to review his book, The Ancient Alien Question (2011). It seemed rather ghoulish to attack the man’s claims in the immediate wake of his sudden passing, and America Unearthed kept me busy during the first quarter of this year. Now that six months or so have passed since Coppens’s death, it seems like I’ve waited long enough to take a closer look at the book that ancient astronaut proponents continue to cite as the most important ancient astronaut book of the past decade.
Don’t believe me? Erich von Däniken declared the book “important.” Giorgio Tsoukalos called it “a must-read” and “captivating,” while Robert Bauval—who spent the 1990s pretending he wasn’t an ancient astronaut theorist—said that the book “breaks the intellectual sound barrier.”
Before we begin, a small bibliographic note: I am working off of the eBook version of The Ancient Alien Question, so I am not able to provide page number references. Today I will look at the first few chapters and continue on with the rest of the book over the next few days.
Erich von Däniken sets a religious tone in writing the forward to the book, citing Genesis 6:4, the passage about the giants, as his childhood inspiration for believing in aliens. Von Däniken states that one day, at 17, he “decided” he would take all ancient myths and legends as eyewitness reports, and thus was born his interest in ancient astronauts. He elides his criminal background as he talks of how his garrulous personality is the only thing that overcame the blinkered shortsightedness of book publishers to get Chariots of the Gods on the market, and he describes the books’ mistakes as “unavoidable” because of his youth (he was 32—my age now).
He then proposes a new branch of science, “Central-American-Indology,” to explore the “connections” between Central America (presumably he means Mesoamerica) and India. He then proposes the creation of a new branch of the humanities, “New-Age-Philology,” which would substitute science-fiction terminology for spiritual terminology in ancient texts to “re-translate” them in light of aliens, so “heaven” would become “the universe” or “the spaceship.”
Von Däniken complains that archaeologists are close-minded, and he is aghast that Herodotus is believed to be telling the truth only when external evidence confirms his statements; instead, von Däniken would like all of Herodotus to be considered true, even the parts other Greeks contradicted. He specifically would like the ancient lists of the kings of Egypt to be accepted at face value, in their tens of thousands of years.
He concludes by announcing the return of the aliens and disclaiming any suggestion that he is founding a “cult”—“All of this has nothing to do with a new religion. I will turn myself around in my grave if my ideas turn into a cult.” With this specific word and phrase that I am almost forced to read it as a half-understood reference to my Cult of Alien Gods (2005), known to von Däniken’s protégé Giorgio Tsoukalos; my earlier work, of course, having been shown on Ancient Aliens alongside von Däniken’s own. In that book, I pointed to specific quasi-religious groups like the Raëlians, the Nuwaubians, etc. who used von Däniken’s works as inspiration.
Philip Coppens starts his book with a paean to Erich von Däniken, followed by a broadside at scholars for making taboo the study of ancient aliens (note: no longer “astronauts”—the Apollo-era terminology is apparently too dated). If we allow that ancient aliens are the latest version of the Atlantis theme, scholars have not made it taboo; instead, over the past two centuries scholars have found exactly no evidence in favor of the idea that a superior culture, race, or species was directly responsible for the achievements of prehistoric humans.
Coppens summarizes the 230 questions asked in Chariots of the Gods, mostly whether architecture and myth indicates aliens, and then claims—without warrant—that “science” “feels it should not have to answer these questions, because, as scientists see it, they are posed by an idiot.” No, the questions have repeatedly been answered; Coppens and von Däniken refuse to believe the answers. Coppens credits von Däniken with “forcing” scientists to study hitherto ignored sites like the Nazca lines, and he paradoxically argues that science has still failed to answer von Däniken’s questions. But those questions—Was Nazca an airport? Was the Great Pyramid positioned at earth’s gravitational center? Was Lot’s wife pulverized by a nuclear blast?—are based on false premises, faulty logic, and willful ignorance of actual science.
As evidence of his position, Coppens suggests that archaeologists are “boycotting” the Bosnian pyramids because these structures fail to fit their blinkered paradigms; in fact, they aren’t excavating there because the site is not a pyramid but a natural hill, as even alternative historian Robert Schoch admits. Coppens then asserts that in 2008, twenty leading Egyptologists were unaware that the oldest pyramid in the world is in Peru and that the “largest” (presumably he means by volume, not, say, height) is Cholula in Mexico. “When the leading archaeologists of our time do not even know—or can’t accept—the latest scientific findings in their field, is there any hope that they will ever be willing to address the Ancient Alien Question?” Here Coppens confuses the working knowledge of specialists (necessarily limited to their specialty) for the refusal of “science” in the broadest sense to integrate findings. This is roughly like complaining that botanists aren’t aware of the latest developments in chimpanzee research so they must be fools.
As this is the introduction, Coppens merely throws out claims—The Great Pyramid was built from geopolymers! Archaeology is “silent” on Puma Punku!—that he presumably will be exploring in more detail later. He then accuses archaeology and history of being “insular” disciplines unwilling to look across cultures, only “within them.” And he knows this based on what? His extensive reading of alternative history’s anger at academia? He mentions not even a single mainstream publication or even a specific historian to support this view. There is a degree of merit in this insofar as specialists necessarily focus on their area of specialization and there is a general tendency to look for internal explanations before seeking out exotic ones; however, in my reading of archaeology and history texts, journal articles and books alike, scholars have never been reluctant to seek cross-cultural influences where they are warranted. The classic case is that of Greece, where for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there was a dogmatic resistance, born of Eurocentric worldviews, that Greece originated culture rather than received any influence from the Near East. Today, that situation is completely reversed, and scholars recognize widespread influence from the Near East in the development of ancient Greece—from Indo-European themes in Homer to Hittite influence on the tales of the gods.
But that doesn’t play into Coppens’s idea of history as anti-alien conspiracy.
Coppens falsely claims the Giza pyramids represent Orion’s Belt and that archaeology refuses to acknowledge the fact—that’s because the appearance is so loose as to be meaningless. He then says—and I don’t understand this—that the use of gold as the “metal of the gods” in both Mexico and Egypt proves that the Old and New Worlds were in communication because gold has no practical or utilitarian value. Here is wrong there, of course. Gold was the metal of the gods for a very practical reason: It doesn’t rust or corrode and therefore is as immortal as the gods. Independent cultures have noticed this without mutual contact.
He wraps up the introduction with an irrelevant claim about panspermia (bacteria hitching a ride on asteroids implies nothing about intelligent space travelers) and an analogy: Legends of a lost civilization in the Amazon were ignored by science until the remains of an actual civilization in the Amazon were uncovered; therefore, forgotten legends of sky gods who civilized humanity must be evidence of aliens. “Hundreds of legends exist about deities that descended from the skies and interacted with humankind and taught them civilization. Almost every ancient civilization on this planet has written accounts that say as much.” They do not. Not even close. Oannes came up from the sea, to take Coppens’s own most famous example.
The first chapter begins with Coppens asking us to assume that Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, about making first contact with aliens, could have happened thousands of years ago. What would be left? Nothing tangible. Further, he says that in the future people might not believe we ever went to the moon and that there would be no evidence to prove we ever did, for close-minded historians could merely explain it all away as myth. (Coppens apparently doesn’t think anyone will notice the human artifacts left on the moon itself.)
He next presents a potted history of Carl Sagan, including his efforts to help found CSICOP (now CSI), whose name Coppens gets wrong. Coppens calls CSICOP “a modern-day Inquisition” suppressing “answers” that science doesn’t recognize. He discusses Sagan’s efforts at space exploration and speculates whether aliens might communicate with us from afar through messages coded in the blinking of pulsars; this question, while interesting, has no direct relevance to the question of whether aliens came to the earth in the past few thousand years.
Coppens, who presented himself as a scholar and philosopher, grossly misunderstand evolution when he next summarizes it thusly: “The theory of evolution suggests that we are the pinnacle of creation, and science is quick to assume that we are at the pinnacle of civilization.” Evolution makes no claims that the creatures of today are better or worse than those that came before; organisms are constantly in flux, adapting to their environment at any given time. He mistakes evolution for teleology, and his claim about civilization is worse. Civilizations rise and fall, there is no single arrow directed upward toward an imaginary moment of perfection. Sometimes, as in the Greek Dark Ages, the early medieval period in Europe or the post-Classic period in Mexico, less complicated civilizations succeed more complex ones. In terms of political and social integration, our world today is more disorganized than that of a century ago. Coppens is confused by technology, which he views as a proxy measure for civilization, thinking that improved technology implies superior “civilization” in all measures. The truth is that some things get better and some get worse, and there never was a perfect time. If today is better than yesterday, it is because more people have the opportunity for a more comfortable and healthy life, not because computers made us morally superior to the Victorians or the Romans.
Coppens is also wrong in his next assertion, that prehistoric civilizations were “primitive.” This is an old idea, from simplistic Victorian schemata about the upward progress of civilization, but it hasn’t been a widespread academic belief since probably the 1950s, at the latest. But that’s part for the course for ancient astronaut writers, who take an idea—whenever it was proposed—for an eternal, unchanging dogma. This allows Coppens to present early twentieth century Soviet speculation about ancient astronauts—inspired by that country’s official atheism—as a blow against Western arrogance, along with early ancient astronaut writers of the West, whom Coppens takes for heroes. He chides Sagan for debunking von Däniken’s claims as though they were meant to be “valid evidence” instead of “speculations.” Well, that clears it up. Coppens wants us to assume that “facts” and “speculation” should be given equal weight in determining how we view history, with speculation alone exempt from fact-checking!
This seemingly-endless chapter—which, mind you, has provided not a whit of original investigation, only summary of other authors—next complains that the valid concerns that the ancient astronaut theory unconsciously replicates racist, imperialist, and colonialist narratives from the nineteenth century about the inferiority of non-Western peoples is “mudslinging” meant to distract from the “scientific debate” over evidence. But didn’t he just say that the idea was “speculation,” not “evidence”? Coppens’s argument against what even he recognizes as vaguely racist ideas in the ancient astronaut theory is that it “is not racist” because ancient people attributed their success to the gods and therefore cannot be racist against themselves. I’ll give him a point here because while I believe ancient astronaut ideas are a direct outgrowth of racist and colonialist narratives (particularly the Atlantis theories of Ignatius Donnelly and the Theosophical Root Races), as practiced by modern ancient astronaut theorists, they equally denigrate all ancient peoples—indeed, as Ancient Aliens has shown, all people in general—as stupid pawns of the aliens. Therefore, the current version of the speculative idea does not discriminate by color and is not racist so much as it is a general-purpose celebration of humanity’s inferiority before the divine.
This chapter reviews other people’s ancient alien ideas, continuing the trend of this “important,” “must-read” book offering nothing by way of original thought. First up is David Icke, whose Reptilian fantasies Coppens fails to connect to the anti-Semitic and anti-Masonic conspiracy theories whence they came; instead, Coppens notes that “a lot of people” believe in conspiracies like Icke’s, which is evidence of nothing. Next is William Bramley’s Gods of the New Eden, another reptile-conspiracy book (in the form of the imaginary alien-dominated Brotherhood of the Snake) that also relied on claims about a conspiracy to control international finance, and which Coppens again fails to notice reanimates anti-Semitic tropes from earlier centuries.
Coppens paraphrases Bramley’s discussion of religion as the aliens’ key organization, and he laments (against fact) that religion has failed to create a “paradigm shift” to make us believe that the soul is “more important than the body.” He mistakes the “materialist” twenty-first century methodological naturalism of modern science for a universal belief that the “body still reigns supremely” (English is not his first language). As a point of fact, belief in the immortality and superiority over the soul has run so broad and so deep in human history that millions have been willing to lay down their lives for reward in the afterlife. Coppens cites Bramley as arguing that the aliens invented racism and warfare as a means of controlling humankind.
Coppens provides the following quotation from Bramley without comment or objection:
The Renaissance was a short period of history revealing that when repression is eased, when intolerance and war-inducing philosophies diminish in importance, and when people are able to think and act more freely, human beings as a whole will naturally and automatically move away from war.
Seriously? Does neither man know anything of history? In Europe (which is for both men synecdoche for the world), wars continued apace during the 1400s and 1500s, lessened in intensity only by the fewer numbers of soldiers available to fight, thanks not to “freedom” but to the population collapse caused by the Black Death. In this period, Europe even began exporting its battles outward, to Asia and the New World. It was during the Renaissance that Machiavelli wrote his bellicose treatises on the proper application of violence, and it was in 1453 that the Turks conquered Constantinople en route to conquering half of Europe. Also: The Hundred Years' War. And in the Italian heartland of the Renaissance? The Renaissance (i.e. Habsburg-Valois) Wars.
Next up, Coppens looks at Zecharia Sitchin, again without noticing that Sitchin’s gold-hungry caste of alien elites bear an uncanny resemblance to the fictive Elders of Zion. Coppens summarizes Sitchins ideas, and he correctly note that Sitchin was responsible (directly or indirectly) for most current ancient alien conspiracy ideas. To his credit, Coppens uses the work of Mike Heiser to dismantle Sitchin’s false translations and to explain that Sitchin was essentially hallucinating when he magically transformed well-established cuneiform texts into tales of space capsules and alien overlords. Sadly, while Coppens does a good job explaining why Sitchin is wrong (and, really, there is no way to defend him either linguistically or astronomically), he relies on Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Deschend in Hamlet’s Mill for his views on Sumerian astronomy, a bad idea since Hamlet’s Mill is full of false ideas.
Coppens then notes that Sitchin’s false ideas inspired René A. Boulay’s 1990 book about Reptilian aliens, and he concludes that this derivative idea is therefore false. But he will not take the next step and recognize that if all of the modern ancient astronaut ideas derived from Sitchin are false, then there is little to support any other version, relying as it does on the same faulty evidence. Instead, Coppens points to a suggestion I have made in the past, that the ancient astronaut idea is quasi-religious in nature: “In the Western world of the 21st century, god has become an unpopular word; in fact, one can argue that the Ancient Alien Question was only posed because the weight of the God-word began to wane.” But, sadly, he does not recognize this as a philosophical argument against ancient aliens but instead as a reason why ancient alien theorists have been too eager to make limited alien contact into a universal theory of alien control over all aspects of human life.
I was not surprised that Coppens devotes the next section to explaining why Robert Temple’s Sirius Mystery was false, especially since it was Coppens (writing under his given name of Filip) who first alerted me back in an article from 2001 or so to Walter van Beek’s devastating fieldwork that demonstrated that the Dogon possessed no alien-derived knowledge of the Sirius star system.
Coppens then praises Jacques Vallée for collecting so much wonderful testimony of ancient astronauts—which I have previously shown Vallée fabricated—and he singles out a specific passage about aerial ships and their pilots from The Comte de Gabalis (Discourse V, 130f., but note preceding), a fictitious Rosicrucian novel of 1670, as evidence that aliens visited Charlemagne. This text was written nearly nine centuries after Charlemagne as an allegory and makes obviously untrue claims, like Charlemagne’s alleged legislation against alien invasions by airship. By 1670, the concept of flying ships was common enough in literature that there is no reason to assume any reality to this fictive tale that does not exist outside the Rosicrucian fable.
But this lets Coppens explore—as always, by summarizing others—the idea that UFOs are real and were abducting prophets like Enoch. Coppens throws up his hands, though, and concludes that we cannot have just one theory to explain UFOs, abductions, and ancient aliens, so he will need to look at various aspects of the ancient alien question separately, in subsequent chapters.
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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