Did you see the preview for Ancient Aliens that’s running on H2 this week? In the brief promotional clip (apparently filmed specifically for promotional purposes), Giorgio Tsoukalos shows a picture of a jet pilot in a flight suit with an oxygen hose dangling from his mask and asks: “What if our ancestors encountered something like this and misinterpreted it as an elephant’s trunk?” He compares the flight suit to statues of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha.
Think about the leaps of logic required here. First, we must assume that the aliens wore flight suits with air hoses. How does this square with Tsoukalos’ other claims that images of bulbous-headed or helmeted deities represented alien space helmets—with no hoses? How does any of this square with Tsoukalos’ and his mentor Erich von Däniken’s assertion that the aliens had sex with human women? Why did the aliens need space suits and oxygen masks for walking about in ancient India but apparently were able to have hot and heavy interspecies sex without any complication from atmospheric pressure. Would you expose your penis to an atmosphere so dangerous you needed helmets and oxygen masks?
Second, we must also assume that the Indians, who lived in a land filled with elephants, somehow could not tell the difference between an elephant’s trunk and a hose, this despite the fact that tubes of various sorts were well-known, if from no other source than from the entrails of animals. Additionally, they somehow were unable to see the difference between a helmet and an elephant’s head, seeing large ears and tusks (!) where there apparently were none.
The god Ganesha first appears in Hindu iconography in the fourth century CE. The earliest most scholars place Ganesha would be the second century CE, when the first elephant-headed yakṣa (minor nature spirit), not yet a god, is seen, though (as we shall see), there is some evidence for an earlier form. The elephant-headed goddess Vinayaki was known from perhaps as early as the first century BCE, and a possibly unrelated elephant-headed god can be seen in iconography of the second century BCE. There is no evidence of elephant-headed iconography prior to this time; therefore, if the Indians created the god after viewing the aliens, the “aliens” must have been here no later than 200 BCE.
This was after the Classical Age of Greece, after the time of Alexander the Great, and a period well documented in the records of Greece and China; it was also a period in which Greeks had trade relationships with and actually visited India. Certainly the “aliens” hadn’t been there in c. 400 BCE when Ctesias of Cnidus visited Persia and recorded their information about India, which lacked any mention of aliens. Certainly they hadn’t been there in 300 BCE when Megasthenes visited India in person and wrote an account of the people and their gods with no mention of extraterrestrials and their oxygen masks. So, that means the "aliens" had to arrive between 300 BCE and 200 BCE.
None of the Greeks or the Romans who visited India (or those who lived there) thought to make any mention of mysterious space travelers with hoses for noses wandering about the countryside.
Nor would they. The elephant-headed god very clearly derives from earlier, fully-elephantine iconography that dates back to the time of the Indus Valley civilization. The elephant had long been sacred to the Vedic and Hindu faiths, and it is no leap of logic to see the sacred animal have his head placed upon a god’s—especially a nature-spirit’s—body. This can clearly be seen at Kapisa (formerly the Greco-Indian Alexandria), where a fully-elephant god was worshiped as the presiding spirit of the mountain. On a coin made just after the “aliens” came, around 170 BCE, for the Indo-Greek king Eukratides Zeus (the god of mountains) is seen seated on a throne, from which peaks the head of an elephant. Other Indo-Greek rulers also used the head of an elephant as a synecdoche for the entire elephant god, sometimes depicting just the elephant’s head as the entire god, as on the coin of Demetrius. From there, under Greek influence, anthropomorphic Greek deity of the mountain and indigenous animal god of the mountain merged, forming an elephant-headed god. This is proved by a very late Indo-Greek coin showing a man with an elephant’s head, possibly the first Ganesha, or if not certainly some other god with the same form. (See M. K. Dhavalikar’s “Antiquity of Ganesha: The Numismatic Evidence” and “Ganesha: Myth and Reality” in Ganesh: Studies of an Asian God.)
So, in a very tangential sense, Tsoukalos is right: “Aliens” inspired the elephant-headed god Ganesh. But these weren’t space aliens. They were foreigners to India, the Greeks coming with and after Alexander, whose artistic conventions led them to depict India’s elephant god as a person with an elephant’s head.
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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