On February 18, 1960, Britain’s New Scientist magazine, then in its fifth year of publication, presented a short article that established, in its essentials, the same ancient astronaut theory—right down to the mid-century rocket fetish—that would capture the public imagination a decade later, when Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods was translated into English. This brief article is an important piece of ancient astronaut history, and another example of the debt that von Däniken owed to the sources from which he shamelessly copied his ideas.
The anonymous piece appeared unceremoniously halfway through the “Notes and Comments” section under the title “A Visit from Spacemen.” The piece begins by stating that the transformation of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt is “baffling” to “modern science.” The then author introduces the work of Soviet scientist Matest M. Agrest (1915-2005), who a few months earlier had published his theory that the events of Genesis 19 could be explained by extraterrestrials using nuclear weapons on Sodom and Gomorrah, thus killing Lot’s wife, before building the megalithic platform at Baalbek as a launch pad to return to their home planet.
“What is so striking about this hypothesis,” New Scientist wrote, “is the vast range of other phenomena which it will now serve to explain.” The author claimed that puzzles such as Stonehenge and the extinction of the dinosaurs “solve themselves” when aliens are admitted “in light of Argest’s idea.” It did not occur to the author that this was simply a deus ex machina—in the most literal sense—a mere God of the Gaps.
The writer then adds that the Greek gods of Olympus were the “best-documented group of space visitors,” possessed of a “technology which in many respects surpassed our own,” including aerial propulsion systems hidden in helmets and shoes (Hermes and Perseus), invisibility systems (Perseus again), the ability to disguise themselves as others (think Athena in the Odyssey), control of the weather (Athena in the Odyssey; Zeus with his lightning), and “the astounding accuracy of their ballistic missiles” (I suppose these must be Zeus’ lightning bolts). The author was much taken with the idea, used promiscuously by later ancient astronaut authors, that any story, no matter how fantastic, must be taken literally.
The accompanying cartoon illustration shows a rocket beside a Greco-Roman temple offering a launch countdown in Roman numerals.
The full text of this early precursor to the modern ancient astronaut theory can be read at Google Books.
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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