When I was a kid, I really liked Disney’s Uncle Scrooge comic books, and it struck me that they contained a lot of the same material fringe history material that I eventually would read about in ancient astronaut and ancient mystery books. Scrooge McDuck, for example, went in search of King Solomon’s mines and the Minotaur’s Labyrinth, the philosopher’s stone and the lost continent of Atlantis. These stories, first published in the early 1950s, drew on the pulp fiction of the 1930s and 1940s (hence their Atlanaeans evolved into fish-people), and form another offshoot of the same pulp fiction/weird fiction complex that gave rise to UFOs, ancient astronauts, and other pseudoscientific approaches to history. The comic stories, frequently reprinted down to the present, also formed the basis for the Indiana Jones-style adventures of the animated Duck Tales series.
I obtained copies of some of the oldest Uncle Scrooge comics, and they contained a number of stories that are no longer reprinted, mostly because they’re really racist. I was struck, though, by a scene that occurred in Uncle Scrooge #29, in the story “The Island in the Sky,” from March-May 1960. In that adventure Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, and the kids Huey, Dewey, and Louie travel by rocket to the asteroid belt in order to find a new hiding place for Scrooge’s three cubic acres of cash. They thought they found an uninhabited rock, only to discover that it was filled with “primitive” Indians.
Take a look at what happens next:
It’s pretty much the ancient astronaut theory in a nutshell. What’s more, it’s almost identical to the thought experiment that Erich von Däniken asked readers to imagine in the second chapter of Chariots of the Gods in 1968. There, he asked readers to consider Earth men rocketing to another planet and landing before a primitive race:
Our space travellers see beings making stone tools; they see them hunting and killing game with throwing spears; flocks of sheep and goats are grazing on the steppe; primitive potters are making simple household utensils. A strange sight to greet our astronauts!
There is no question of direct transmission. These are not the only examples of the theme. For instance, The Twilight Zone episode S03E28 “The Little People” from March 30, 1962 similarly featured Earth astronauts being taken for gods by the tiny inhabitants of an alien world. Predating all of these is the 1956 clunker The Mole People, in which American archaeologists entering the Hollow Earth find a remnant Sumerian civilization and convince the king that that they are divine beings sent by Ishtar. (And what a dud that film is! It’s half a century’s worth of fringe history, from Hollow Earth theories to Panbabylonism, distilled into 77 crappy minutes.) Undoubtedly, there are many other examples.
What is interesting, though, is that the Uncle Scrooge version makes quite plain (though somewhat incorrectly) the direct inspiration for assuming that Native people would mistake space travelers for deities: the myth, recorded by Spanish missionaries, that the Native peoples of Mexico mistook the Conquistadors for their returning white gods. This is the same myth that, in another form, informed the diffusionist claim that white men had long ago colonized the Americas and given the continent its civilization, Christianity, and/or Templar-Freemason secrets. That story was invented in the 1530s and 1540s by the first generation of Spanish historians of the New World. It was based on a fake speech Cortés assigned to Montezuma, and expanded upon by Bernardino de Sahagún and the Franciscan historians.
While that may have been the origin point for the modern trope, it is not the starting point for the story. The Spanish missionaries came to the New World steeped in the Bible and therefore expected that in the New World they would find echoes of the Old. They already believed themselves to be the equivalent of the Apostles—writers like Diego Durán and Toribio de Benavente believed St. Thomas or another Apostle visited Mexico and Peru 1500 years earlier—and they imagined themselves to be treated like them. Therefore, it is no surprise that they cast the arrival of the Catholic Spanish in terms familiar from Acts 14:
11 Now when the people saw what Paul had done, they raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” 12 And Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 Then the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, intending to sacrifice with the multitudes. 14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard this, they tore their clothes and ran in among the multitude, crying out 15 and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men…”
We could keep going back further, to the Euhemerists of ancient Greece, who thought that the gods were old kings whose memories had been deified.
In all of these cases, however, the literary purpose of such narratives is clear: They paint the Natives as primitive, naïve, credulous, and a little stupid. They also serve to glorify the conquerors as the opposite. The ancient astronaut theory therefore has the unintended consequence of making all humans look stupid, which is perhaps why so many modifications of it attempt to set aside a subset of humans, typically elite white males, who understand the truth and actively conspire with the aliens while everyone else stumbles about in blindness.
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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