For those of you watching Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC last night, you were undoubtedly amused by the program’s discussion of the ancient astronaut theory. This gets into some of the arcana of Marvel comics, which goes far beyond my understanding of the complexities of the various Marvel universes. As I understand it, in the standard issue Marvel universe (Earth-616), the deities of Norse mythology are presented as essentially gods, though they are apparently officially extra-dimensional beings. On the other hand, the Earth X universe (Earth-9997), the Norse gods are shape-shifting aliens from space who took on the personas of the Norse gods thanks to human worship of them. Since the Earth X series dates from 1999, it probably isn’t particularly relevant.
In the comics, the Norse gods are long-lived mortals with godlike powers, but other deities such as the Greek Olympians are (all but) immortal gods. The various pantheons are extra-dimensional (like some of Lovecraft’s Old Ones) and exist in magical realms adjacent to the earth. Another group, the Celestials, are godlike aliens who genetically engineer humans. Created in 1976, they were apparently modeled on the Anunnaki as depicted by Zecharia Sitchin that year.
These various comics continuities are separate again from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or whatever they’re calling it now), which includes some (but not all) of the Marvel superhero movies (Spider-Man, for example, is a notable exception), as well as the Agents series. Last night’s episode was meant to tie in with the recent release of Thor: The Dark World, and it therefore deals with the question of whether the Norse gods are aliens.
In the episode, the characters strongly imply that the Norse gods—which Marvel terms the Asgardians—are space aliens. Agent Coulson specifically states that the Norse gods’ magic items came “from space.” Skye wonders whether other deities like Vishnu (who appears in Marvel comics as a god) are also space aliens in what seems to be a direct reference to Ancient Aliens. The discussion suggests that early humans worshipped space aliens, mistaking their technology for divine magic, a key tenet of Chariots of the Gods and Ancient Aliens.
Normally, I don’t really have a problem with programs that are explicitly meant as entertainment using a fringe idea for entertainment purposes. But when the traditional continuity has been rewritten to explicitly add in the concept of ancient astronauts, it raises a few red flags. Obviously, there is the problem that the show presented the idea matter-of-factly as a scientific given to one of television’s largest audiences. There’s already been an uptick in online activity looking for information on the ancient astronaut theory as a result of the broadcast.
[Note: I have rewritten the following paragraph to clarify what I meant to say.]
While this is most likely a coincidence, Marvel and ABC are owned by Disney, which is also the co-owner (with Hearst) of A+E Networks, parent of the History Channel, whose H2 network shows Ancient Aliens. Ancient Aliens shows up at ComicCon alongside Marvel. We know that Agents series creator Joss Whedon also has a thing for Lovecraft (attested in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Cabin in the Woods), and there may be a hint of the Cthulhu Mythos here in the idea that ancient alien artifacts, once uncovered, can wreak great havoc, like the Shining Trapezohedron or the idols of Cthulhu. It’s all a very neat package of mutually-reinforcing ideas that have at their core financial profit. Fringe history makes money across the Disney empire, including even at ABC News, who ran a story earlier this year claiming that ancient aliens were both real and need your gold. If you are an ancient astronaut theorist or a fringe historian, you would call it a conspiracy.
Now I don’t really think Disney cares enough about Ancient Aliens, which they do not produce, on a network they only half-own, to coordinate explicitly, though they did in fact coordinate with ABC to promote the myth of Atlantis in conjunction with the release of Disney’s Atlantis movie, and they have historically been friendly to ancient astronaut claims. In the 1990s, ABC aired an Erich von Däniken TV special, which I believe was the last time a major broadcast network had a nonfiction ancient astronaut program. The network used the special to help funnel viewers to similar programming on A&E and the History Channel, which at the time they had a one-third stake in with Hearst and NBC, another network that had endorsed fringe history with a series of specials touting creationism and lost civilization theories. All of these network documentaries remained in regular rotation on the cable stations down to the mid-2000s. Fringe history makes for fast and easy money.
I wonder, though, what Disney—purveyor of global theme parks—thinks of Erich von Däniken turning Chariots of the Gods into a “brand” that hired Attraktion! Group last year to build a new ancient astronaut theme park (the first, Mystery Park, in Switzerland having closed due to non-interest) to capitalize on the popularity of Ancient Aliens. I can’t imagine they were too happy to be giving free publicity to a competitor’s park. The rollout was supposed to include a (presumably fictional) Chariots TV series, a feature film, a book series, shopping mall mini-parks, video games, and “trans-media” properties. Although this was announced in January 2012, as of today, nothing has happened.
Von Däniken apparently sold the intellectual property of Chariots of the Gods—and what might that be since it is supposedly “fact” and therefore not controllable?—to a shadowy group called Media Invest Entertainment, a Liechtenstein-registered company that exists solely to exploit Chariots of the Gods. It intended to turn Chariots into a global brand. In 2009, they filed for a U.S. trademark for audio recordings, video games, computer games, clothing, and other materials—and they filed just after the premiere of Ancient Aliens, which von Däniken obviously saw a comeback vehicle that would return him to prominence. The original pilot of Ancient Aliens was explicitly designed as an exploration of von Däniken’s ideas, but Giorgio Tsoukalos somehow stole the spotlight from his master and is now the “face” of ancient astronautics.
However, despite receiving trademark approval in 2010, Media Invest waited almost two years to announce its plans, and to this day still claims to be trolling for “investors” to help make a Chariots a global brand. I wonder if A+E, Disney, or Prometheus Entertainment (owner of the name “Ancient Aliens”) discovered that von Däniken would be using Ancient Aliens to promote a new TV series and a theme park in direct competition with their properties. Or maybe thanks to Ancient Aliens nobody under 40 remembers Chariots of the Gods. Either way, von Däniken’s plans seem to have fallen through while his offshoot, Ancient Aliens, soldiers on.
But what exactly is the “intellectual property” von Däniken transferred to Media Invest?
It can’t be his book, because Media Invest has a disclaimer that they don’t own that—his German publisher does. It can’t be the concept of ancient astronauts since von Däniken didn’t invent them (H. P. Blavatsky, Garrett P. Serviss, Charles Fort, H. P. Lovecraft, Jacques Bergier, Louis Pauwels, Robert Charroux, and others have prior claim). It can’t really even be the name “Chariots of the Gods” since that phrase is taken from Bulfinch’s Mythology and Victorian translations of Plato and was a common phrase before von Däniken’s publisher found it. At any rate, he did not own the trademark before Media Invest applied for one. The only thing it can really be is Erich von Däniken’s own celebrity, for what that’s worth.
Perhaps this is why Attraktion! Group, the company hired by Media Invest to produce its “entertainment” has taken to calling Chariots a “novel”—since novels have characters that can be considered intellectual property, while nonfiction does not.
In theory, anyone could open an ancient astronaut theme park or sell ancient astronaut clothing since ideas can’t be copyrighted. My book was called The Cult of Alien Gods, and I’d be happy to rent the name “Alien Gods” for a modest fee! (I’m kidding, of course: I don’t actually own “Alien Gods”—yet.)
Interestingly, in June of this year Spencer Lane Corporation, an entity registered to Douglas Lodato of Santa Monica, California, tried to trademark the name Ancient Aliens for a line of video games and a massively multiplayer online ancient astronaut gaming world. I do not know his relationship to Prometheus Entertainment, but apparently he tried to file independently of the TV series, since Prometheus Entertainment failed to request a trademark for Ancient Aliens for anything beyond television documentaries. The Trademark and Patent Office, however, just issued a few weeks ago a final refusal because the trademark infringes on Prometheus’ trademark, but the claim isn’t officially dead because Lotado could still file an appeal.
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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