Editor's Note: I am taking a couple of days off this week as summer winds down, fringe authors are enjoying their vacations, and blog readership is low. Enjoy this rerun of a piece, lightly adapted, that first ran in October 2012.
In the fall of 2012, I told you how Rod Serling became involved in ancient astronauts as his Night Gallery series was in the process of being cancelled. Serling’s producer for the In Search of Ancient Astronauts documentary that launched the ancient astronaut “theory” in the United States was Alan Landsburg, who turned his follow-up documentary, In Search of Ancient Mysteries, into a book of the same name. So why did Landsburg fail as an ancient astronaut theorist?
Landsburg portrayed himself as an original, insightful thinker, but his ancient astronaut book has failed to stand the test of time. I think this is due to a combination of factors. First, Landsburg (who died in 2014) failed to promote himself alongside his material. Landsburg relied on first Rod Serling and then Leonard Nimoy to be the voice for his ideas. Since Landsburg was not himself the celebrity associated with his ideas, his books were remembered as little more than promotional tie-ins for his documentaries, which in turn were associated with their narrators rather than their producer.
The ancient astronaut theory survived the 1970s almost entirely because Erich von Däniken and Zecharia Sitchin became, at least in their limited spheres, celebrities. Today, Giorgio Tsoukalos and David Childress fill the same role. The personality drives the idea; these men are selling themselves as a brand as much (if not more) than the ancient alien idea. Tsoukalos is the culmination of this idea; he sells autographed merchandise on his website, charges a fortune to lend his “personality” to conferences and events, and produces absolutely no original writing or research of any kind. By contrast, Landsburg produced two relatively well written books (with his wife Sally) and three solid (if untrue) documentaries and a syndicated series (In Search of…) without ever making himself part of the story he tried to tell.
It’s rather ironic, of course, that Landsburg’s very professionalism—putting the material and the ideas above the reporter—cost him canonization in the ancient alien pantheon.
Second, Landsburg lost interest in his alternative theories. While von Däniken—who had no other source of income—stuck with the aliens for 45 years, Landsburg produced more than 2,000 hours of television in a bewildering variety of fields, including The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Kate & Allie. At the very time he launched the alternative history series In Search of…, his interest in ancient astronauts had already given way to his passion for horse racing. With no new material forthcoming, Landsburg’s early 1970s ancient astronaut efforts faded from memory, merging with von Däniken, Sitchin, and others, and subsumed by them.
Third, his ideas were weird and wrong. I’ve already written about his silly claim that the ancient astronauts would return on Christmas Eve 2011, and he also had some other howlers. In his In Search of Ancient Mysteries, he related from Pedro de Cieza de Leon, a conquistador, that a “resplendent sun” rose from an island in Lake Titicaca. “Could the sun that rose so resplendently have been a departing spacecraft?” he asked. Tsoukalos and Childress couldn’t have put it better.
Well, no, it wasn’t a spaceship. How do we know this? Although Landsburg more or less correctly quotes his Spanish source--though he actually misleadingly abridges without acknowledgement a translation appearing in a 1971 National Geographic article--he quotes only one sentence, while the larger passage makes very plain that we are talking about an imaginary event. For the record, NatGeo is on the left and Landsburg on the right.
As you can see, Landsburg has removed references to the previous darkness to make the sun seem more like a spaceship. Here is the broader context in the original Spanish and in English in a standard translation:
Antes que los Incas reinasen en estos reinos ni en ellos fuesen conocidos, cuentan estos indios otra cosa muy mayor que todas las que ellos dicen, porque afirman questuvieron mucho tiempo sin ver el sol, y que padeciendo gran trabajo con esta falta, hacian grandes votos é plegarias á los que ellos tenian por dioses, pidiéndoles la lumbre de que carecian; y questando desta suerte, salió de la isla de Titicaca, questá dentro de la gran laguna del Collao, el sol muy resplandeciente, con que todos se alegraron.
I think it’s fairly obvious that this is a myth of the disappearing sun, a common motif in mythology. The larger context clearly indicates that this was no spaceship (which would have competed with the sun, not been the sole sun) but a story of the reappearance (rebirth) of the sun. The standard translation, much closer to the original Spanish, also makes plain that it was “the” sun (“el sol”), not “a” sun that rose from the island. Since we are asked to take ancient texts literally, “the” sun can only be, well, the one and only sun.
I don’t know why every ancient astronaut author or pundit feels compelled to fabricate quotations or manipulate them, but Alan Landsburg was no exception. He (a) used a secondary source rather than check the original, (b) took a line out of context, and (c) purposely altered the quotation to remove inconvenient material. Trifecta! Seriously, how could this man have not been on Ancient Aliens?
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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