It’s always weird for me to watch myself on TV. It was weird when I was a student of broadcast journalism in college and was producing TV news reports regularly, and it’s still weird even today. I can never quite get over the way my voice sounds much different in real life than it does in my head. So, it is with trepidation that I sat down to watch the “Ancient Astronauts” episode of Codes & Conspiracies, to which I contributed an interview back in September. Since I am a participant in the show, I don’t consider what follows to be a formal review as much as my thoughts and impressions about how it all turned out.
All right, let me say this first: Did my very first words on national television have to be “Erich von Däniken proposed that human beings had sex with space aliens”? This reminds me of the first time I was ever on TV, when I was 13 and the local TV station, WTVH, came to my middle school to cover an astronaut’s speech to my class. The reporter asked me a dozen questions, and after everyone in my family stayed up late to see me on the 11 o’clock news, the only clip they used had me say that I liked hearing about space toilets.
Second, I’ll note that while the episode is listed as “Ancient Astronauts” in my on-screen guide and on American Heroes Channel’s website, the episode’s title card gives the title as “Did Aliens Visit the Ancients?”
Codes & Conspiracies takes the opposite view from the lionizing biography of Erich von Däniken presented in the 2013 Ancient Aliens episode “The Von Däniken Legacy” (S05E10) and the conspiratorial version offered on America’s Book of Secrets and instead offers some hard facts about the man’s life and times, and some of the darker chapters in his career.
The episode opens by laying out the ancient astronaut theory and the possibility that space aliens visited the earth sometime in the remote past. It overstates the case that the “spark” that “set off” the ancient astronaut theory was Chariots of the Gods, Swiss writer Erich von Däniken’s first book, since the hypothesis was already widely known across Europe and the United States when he wrote his book. At the time, European authors like Jacques Bergier, Louis Pauwels, Robert Charroux, and Peter Kolosimo were publishing on ancient astronaut themes, as were Anglo-American UFO preachers and Theosophy-influenced contactees. But Chariots was certainly the most popular version of the claim and the one that received the greatest media attention and thus the greatest public recognition.
Von Däniken (hereafter EVD) tells the show that his “young head” got confused by interpreting the Bible symbolically or theologically, so he gave up trying and instead wondered if he could avoid interpreting stories like God’s appearance on Sinai or Ezekiel’s vision of God’s throne by taking it all literally as the arrival of space aliens in their fiery ships.
In 1954, at age 19, EVD visited the Giza pyramids, and EVD claims that he had doubts about the pyramids’ construction even then. The show leaves out that EVD fled to Egypt after a conviction for theft, and used his time there to arrange for a jewelry deal that turned sour and ended up with him in prison for embezzlement and fraud. (I’d guess that his pyramid claims are a post hoc rationalization of his Egyptian adventure, but short of a diary or letter confirming it, there’s no way to know.) He also claims to have had a psychic vision of ancient astronauts around this time. In 1958, the French explorer Henri Lhote claimed that Saharan rock art depicted Martians, and EVD took this for fact. The show asserts that EVD read the work of Robert Charroux and took from it the claim that aliens created the white race, and it notes that both authors drew from Le Matin des magiciens (Morning of the Magicians), the influential 1960 book by Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels, which archaeologist Ken Feder describes very well as essentially a counterculture text giving confirmation that everything you know is wrong. Then, for what I believe is the first time on television, the show connects all of this back to H. P. Lovecraft, and I explain that Bergier is the bridge linking Cthulhu to ancient astronauts.
EVD says that he was deeply influenced by Hermann Oberth, a rocket scientist who believed in UFOs and ancient astronauts, and while a guest in EVD’s hotel Oberth encouraged EVD to write Chariots of the Gods, which was rejected by twenty publishers before Econ-Verlag accepted the book. He published the volume in 1968, when he was just 33 years old—the same age I am today. The show notes(well, I note) that the original manuscript discussed Jesus as a space alien before the editor cut it out, and EVD admits that the English publisher coined the phrase Chariots of the Gods in 1969, which is an interesting admission from a man who trademarked the phrase for his own personal business use.
David Brin, a scientist and science fiction writer, and Ken Feder talk about how the book found its footing because of the paranoid questioning of authority in the late 1960s. Feder shows Carl Sagan’s article “Direct Contact among Galactic Civilizations by Interstellar Space Flight” (Planetary Space Science 11 ), speculating on whether ancient astronauts may have visited earth. The article was an attempt to demonstrate the statistical likelihood that Earth was visited at least once, and in the last section Sagan uses material from his work to with I. S. Shklovsky on Intelligent Life in the Universe, then in press. In both places he builds on the Soviet writer Matest M. Agrest, cited by name, the same guy who said Sodom and Gomorrah were blown up by alien atom bombs. He also cited the Oannes myth as the best candidate for a true alien encounter. Contrary to conspiracy theories, the research in Sagan’s article was supported by funding from NASA. However, Sagan soured on the ancient astronaut theory when no evidence emerged, and he attacked EVD for his lack of solid evidence, calling it a “small but significant social danger.”
On November 18, 1968, EVD was arrested in Vienna on embezzlement and other charges for using his hotel’s money to conduct his book research. A court psychiatrist brands him a pathological liar, and EVD uses his time in prison to write a sequel to Chariots while painting himself as a martyr to the cause of truth. His conviction was overturned.
We then hear about the 1973 NBC documentary In Search of Ancient Astronauts, hosted by Rod Serling, and adapted from Chariots of the Gods. The show has me saying something slightly wrong, which embarrasses me. It has me saying “a third” of the United States watched the show, when I should have said (I think I misspoke) that this was a third of American TV viewers, not all Americans. (The actual number of viewers—28 million—was 13% of the population.)
Following this, we start to get into skeptical views on the ancient astronaut theory, running through many of the main arguments against Chariots, and EVD, in this interview, says that he now admits that the heads of Easter Island are not of alien origin. He also concedes that many of his critics were right on specific claims, such as the fact that the Nazca lines could not be an airport. (This is odd since in 2013, he told America’s Book of Secrets that the lines still looked like airstrips to him.) However, he still believes that Lord Pacal’s sarcophagus lid depicts an astronaut. The segment is well produced as a series of back-and-forth clips for EVD and Ken Feder giving opposing views on each piece of evidence. The clips are well matched to make it seem almost like they are talking to one another.
As we move into the last third of the show, the program turns its gaze to ancient astronaut claims about aliens creating human beings, through genetic engineering or interspecies sex. I am seen at great length explaining EVD’s racist claims about the aliens creating white people to replace the “failure” of the black race. I discuss Genesis 6:4 and 1 Enoch—the Watchers, since you can’t talk about fringe history without them!—and EVD claims that his view of hot alien-on-human sex came directly from these texts, specifically when the Sons of God mate with the daughters of men (Gen. 6:4; 1 Enoch 7:1). We briefly pull away from EVD to review Zecharia Sitchin’s claims about Nibiru and alien gold mining operations, and his identification of the Anunnaki with the Sons of God and the Watchers. Skeptical views are offered, and Sitchin’s failures, including his many translation errors and his poor grasp of Sumerian astronomy, are discussed. I must, however, protest the assertion that the word “Anunnaki” was invented by Zecharia Sitchin by attaching the word for “earth” (ki) to the proper name of the Anunna gods. The term “Anunnaki” was already in print in the Assyrian Dictionary in 1870 and is used throughout the classic Assyrian and Babylonian Literature in 1904. It has been the standard transliteration for around 150 years and is not Sitchin’s invention.
We return to the red hot interspecies action to hear me make more sexual comments about slot A and tab B (sigh), and then EVD one ups me with this instant-classic line: “Extraterrestrials do not have the same sexual apparatus as we… or do they have?” The show then talks about the idea of panspermia and its connection to the ancient astronaut theory, which EVD suggests would make us closely related to the aliens—close enough to have sex with them. This is contradicted by everything we know about evolution, which after millions of years would have led to such divergent species that mating would be impossible.
The show concludes by explaining that if we believe in aliens, we don’t need facts. I explain the way that the lack of facts has pushed the ancient astronaut theory in spiritual directions, and EVD says that he’s against interdimensional, semi-spiritual alien gods. We wrap up with the travails of EVD’s Mystery Park and its ersatz mysteries, which now include a bouncy house alongside its fake giant skeleton.
Overall, it was a strong hour and one of the rare instances when cable TV offered an opposing view to the ancient astronaut theory. Unfortunately, for corporate reasons, neither I nor the show was able to refer to or discuss Ancient Aliens on the rival H2 channel, so this restriction left out one of the more important ways in which the ancient astronaut theory and EVD are popularized today.
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.
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