I find it strange that two distinct threads of the ancient astronaut “theory” have recently begun merging. These threads are the “scientific” ancient astronaut speculation and the “spiritual.” The scientific speculators ape the language of science and marshal (alleged) facts and evidence to suggest a material ancient alien scenario whereby humans are the result of extraterrestrial beings mistaken for gods. The spiritual by contrast attributes more or less supernatural powers to the aliens and essentially uses them to replace the gods they supposedly impersonate, even making them objects of worship.
The traditional ancient astronaut nonsense of Erich von Däniken, Robert Temple, and Zecharia Sitchin falls into the “scientific” category since they intended—however imperfectly—to use facts and evidence to propose a hypothesis meant to be evaluated for truth. By contrast, Scientology, the Raëlians, and the Christian UFO ministers of the 1950s and ’60s considered the ancient astronaut idea to be an article of faith, a group of spiritual beings in flying machines meant as a replacement mythology.
Obviously, these two categories have never been completely separate. Consider, for example, R. J. Dione’s infamous God Drives a Flying Saucer (1969), a book of stunningly bizarre claims. At its most basic level, Dione argued that “Flying saucer occupants are responsible for the scriptures, prophecies and miracles of the Christian religion” and that God was a flesh-and-blood alien. At his weirdest, Dione claimed that Mary was artificially inseminated (during hypnosis!) by an alien, that the aliens used radio waves to control any and every human’s thoughts, and heaven is a technological society on another planet reached through becoming an electromagnetic thought wave. (Dione was really just a euhemerist with a tech fetish.) Contrast this with von Däniken caving to his publisher’s pressure to remove references to Jesus as an alien and then proudly proclaiming that his book was compatible with Christianity.
Yet for most of the ancient astronaut theory’s run, the scientific and the spiritual sides have been largely separate. The Raëlians and the Sitchinites didn’t hold mixers, and one would be hard-pressed to find too much overlap between Scientology and the Ancient Alien Society.
So why have recent ancient astronaut claims tended to back away from the scientific and skew toward the spiritual? Erich von Däniken now openly talks in apocalyptic terms about a Final Judgment from the returning aliens, imagery clearly borrowed from Revelation. Philip Coppens writes that the “aliens” might really be “metaphysical” manifestations of a cosmic spirit. David Childress, following as always at others’ heels, speaks of “quantum” dimensions where ethereal aliens will ferry the souls (“consciousness”) of the dead to live in bliss. Even Giorgio Tsoukalos speaks spiritually of the “secrets of the universe” that the ancient aliens unlock for the believers, including but not limited to trans-dimensional portals to heaven-dimensions of alien immortality.
I don’t know how to square that circle. What kind of beings are both metaphysical abstractions that pop in and out of quantum heaven dimensions but are also fleshy creatures docking metallic spacecraft at every megalithic site from Sacsayhuaman to Stonehenge? How can they be both of heaven and earth, of spirit and matter?
I guess the aliens are a replacement Jesus. The doctrine of Christ promulgated at the Council of Ephesus managed that neat trick of being fully divine and fully human in hypostasis, and Ancient Aliens, acting as a sort of Council of Idiots, seems to be groping toward a similar consensus. I think this is due in large measure to the work of skeptics, who have knocked down nearly all of the ancient astronaut idea’s specific physical and literary claims. To stay in business, and on the gravy train, new justifications have to be found. That leaves pretty much two options: become a cult of personality like Sitchin or Tsoukalos (serious, $65 for an autograph?!), or become just a cult. This of course brings us full circle, making modern ancient astronaut believers no different than the Theosophists whose spiritual mumbo-jumbo they have mined for their books for so long.
Really, what’s the difference between metaphysical aliens who pop in and out of heaven dimensions to carry your consciousness to heaven, inspire religions, and build stone buildings on earth (i.e. ancient astronauts) and the metaphysical aliens who pop in and out of heaven dimensions to bring human souls to the next level of existence, provide the foundations of religion, and build stone buildings on earth (i.e. Theosophy)? Oh, right: You can’t copyright Theosophy.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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