Before we begin today, I wanted to share that it is my birthday, and this is what the universe decided to get me: Former television host Scott Wolter is going to be coming to my city of Albany next month to give a lecture to the local Masonic lodge. According to an advertisement that a reader shared with me via Twitter, the $15 entry fee to the three-hour event includes dinner. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Wolter won’t be making good on his promise to buy me a beer when he arrives in town for the May 19 lecture.
Anyway, onto something else I saw on Twitter…
The 1970s were a weird time for everyone, or so I’ve been told. I’m not old enough to have lived through them myself, but pretty much every piece of media I’ve seen from that decade is either weird, grimy, or grim. But I was actually taken a bit aback by the cover of a 1978 UFO magazine posted to Twitter yesterday by the Pulp Librarian. It was a doozy!
“Beware: Polyester Fabrics Are Driving You Insane!” Surely that must be about the most ’70s headline imaginable: conspiratorial, weird, polyester.
That said, the hilarious magazine cover did prompt a little bit of thought about the 1970s and its New Age “mysteries,” both because of the cover itself and a recent article I read in which a parent objected to Oklahoma’s proposed new creationist-friendly teaching standards on the grounds that they would empower teachers to instruct students that the “pyramids were built by aliens.” The bill would provide legal protection to teachers who question scientific conclusions, so long as they do so in an “objective” way that involves criticizing a theory’s “weaknesses.”
Anyway, it made me wonder how it was that “aliens built the pyramids” became shorthand for the ancient astronaut theory, since that specific claim doesn’t appear in most versions of the ancient astronaut theory. Erich von Däniken, for example, devoted a lengthy section of Chariots of the Gods to the mysteries of the pyramids, but he did little more than imply that aliens had something to do with the math. Giorgio Tsoukalos explicitly denies that aliens built the pyramids. It seems that the idea comes mostly from reading into von Däniken’s book and making the connections he didn’t explicitly state.
But what I found most interesting in researching this is that von Däniken and the classic ancient astronaut writers were rather late to the party, and the whole idea of aliens building the pyramids had already been thoroughly worked through in science fiction, and occasionally in UFO books, prior to the ancient astronaut explosion. Garrett P. Serviss, for example, in his 1898 novel Edison’s Conquest of Mars explicitly states “The Martians were the builders of the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids.” While not strictly on the same subject, I found this fascinating passage by science fiction writer P. Schuyler Miller in a nonfiction column for Astounding in July 1958, in an article on the connection between science fiction, ancient history, and occult mysticism:
These various themes that science fiction and fantasy have shared and are sharing with cult-type movements seem to me to be of two main kinds: “They”-centered, and "We”-centered. The first are the kind of thing Wolfgang Müller was discussing in the passages I quoted — a groping for a dogma, an authority, to bolster us up in this uncertain world we’re in. Atlantis — Mu — the sages of Mount Shasta or Tibet — the “geniuses” who made the pyramids, or the Easter Island statues, or the fortress of Sacsahuaman — the people who drive the saucers — all these, severally and in some ungodly amalgams, are variations on the idea that a Great and Wise Power has existed, or does exist, which can solve all our problems if only we’ll let it, and bring back the Golden Age. We want archaeologists to dig up the “secrets” of Mu or Egypt and make everything easy again; we want All-wise, All- powerful people from the stars to come down and take care of us.
Miller naively thought that science fiction readers could separate fiction from the “lunatic fringe” that took it for fact, and in that sort of charmingly optimistic midcentury way, he thought that the occultism of Velikovsky and Shaver and Theosophy would fall before the power of science. He did not see the ancient astronaut theory and the great retrenchment of the 1970s coming.
But this led me, in a roundabout way, to an interesting look at a case where someone did say the pyramids were built by aliens. TV producer Alan Landsburg, in his 1975 tie-in book to the Rod Serling-narrated documentary The Outer Space Connection—the sequel to the Chariots adaptation In Search of Ancient Astronauts—talked about visiting Egypt and claiming to see the water line on the pyramids where the Great Flood covered their prehistoric bulk. He then talked about a Victorian book on the pyramids that he said helped prove the pyramids were an extraterrestrial construction: “In 1859 London publisher John Taylor drew upon all of these ideas and wrote a book that shocked the historians and scientists of the day. Taylor claimed that the pyramids had been built by Noah, who had been directed by a race of superbeings from another world.”
That is pretty close to an explicit claim that space aliens built the pyramids. Too bad Landsburg was fudging it pretty badly, more so when he stated explicitly that Charles Piazzi Smyth published a book which gave support to “the idea of extraterrestrials having built the pyramids.” Yes, we can blame Landsburg for popularizing the idea that aliens built the pyramids, a claim projected backward to von Däniken, whom Landsburg was adapting.
Anyway, it’s all lies. Piazzi Smyth said nothing about aliens, nor did Taylor write of “superbeings.” Piazzi Smyth believed God was responsible for the pyramid, acting through human agents, and Taylor had alleged, as Piazzi Smyth put it,
Mr. Taylor deduces reasons for believing, that the directors of the building of the Great Pyramid were of the chosen race, and in the line of, though preceding Abraham; so early indeed as to be closer to Noah than to Abraham; and had been enabled by divine favour to appreciate the appointed idea, as to the necessity of a sacrifice for a sin-offering,—an idea co-eval with Abel and Cain, but which no man of Egyptian born would ever contemplate with a moment’s patience.
In other words, the Jews built the pyramids after the Flood but before the time of Abraham, and did so because (and this is the—or a?—weird part) God gave the Jews special levels of intelligence disallowed to other races so that they might understand the math needed. Piazzi Smyth abridged the argument a bit too much. Taylor decided that Noah probably created the plans, but his descendants in the line of Shem likely created the actual structure: “To NOAH we must ascribe the original idea, the presiding mind, and the benevolent purpose. He who built the ark was, of all men, the most competent to direct the building of the Great Pyramid.”
So how did Landsburg get from there to “extraterrestrials having built the pyramids”? It’s probably enough to know that Chariots of the Gods is cited in the bibliography but neither Piazzi Smyth’s book nor Taylor’s, which, for those who care, was called The Great Pyramid: Why Was It Built and Who Built It? I’m not sure exactly where Landsburg got his information about Taylor; it clearly wasn’t from primary sources. One possibility is Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, which discusses Taylor at length. Man, Myth, & Magic also included similar material. However, it looks to me like Landsburg was the one who substituted space aliens for God and then confidently claimed Taylor, a religious extremist with a math fetish, as an ancient astronaut theorist. The argument becomes circular: God is an alien, and aliens are God.
Somehow that seems about right.
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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