March 18, 2008 by korshi
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but I thought I’d start with by talking about John Frum. According to the Tanna Tribe of Vanuatu, he is a god who visited the island in the 1930s, coming in a flying metal chariot, bringing alien treasures of coca-cola, radios and canned meat. His worship survives to this day, and as you’ve probably guessed it preserves the memory of the American GIs who visited the island during the Second World War, conflated apparently with ideas about John the Baptist, Santa Claus and Uncle Sam. To ready themselves for the return of their god the islanders clear landing strips in the forests, and sit in wooden air-traffic control towers wearing carved headsets. 
Erich von Däniken is a Swiss writer who believes that most religions, from ancient paganism to Hinduism and Christianity, have a similar source, except rather than worshipping troopers from the US of A, we are worshipping alien voyagers, who made us in their image, and may one day return to set us back on the right path.
Däniken’s books peaked in popularity in the 70s, before I was born, but my school library had quite a large collection of them for some reason, and they captured my teenage imagination. Even then, I was not entirely convinced, but my opinion at the time was that even if his conclusions stretched probability, his anecdotes raised dizzying questions. Who built the vast, seemingly-useless, ancient monuments in Egypt and Stonehenge? Who set a rustproof iron pillar outside Delhi 4000 years ago? Why did the Nazca Indians carve drawings into the earth which could only be seen from space? How could an ancient map show the coastline of Antarctica, buried beneath the ice since before recorded history began?
The ideas have stuck around in my head for a long time, so when I started thinking about this project, Däniken’s first book, “Chariots of the Gods?” seemed a good place to start.
Revisiting your childhood memories is always a dangerous business, and coming back to Däniken’s prose I was… underwhelmed. His arguments are sloppy, his evidence leap-frogs from point to point without time for examination, and forget about footnotes or references. At one point he discussing the Ark of the covenant, he comes out with a surpising admission “without actually consulting Exodus, I seem to remember that the Ark was often surrounded by flashing sparks and that Moses made use of this ‘transmitter’ whenever he needed help and advice”. Okaaay.. When an author can’t be bothered to even look up a page in the world’s most readily-available book, it’s time to worry. 
So, somewhat disappointed, I turned to “The Space Gods Revealed”, a slim volume by Ronald Story, which I serendipitously found in a second-hand bookshop last week. This book is a counter-argument to Däniken, and in meticulous (footnoted) detail Story debunks his opponent’s evidence.
It turns out that most of Erich von Däniken’s ideas were not original to him- many were… inspired by a series of French writers who preceded him, including Jacques Bergier, who wrote “Morning of the Magicians” in 1960, and Robert Charroux, who documented “One Hundred Thousand Years of Man’s Unknown History” shortly later. Däniken’s book, published first in 1968, was just in the right place at the right time, and he became the star, the father of the alien astronaut movement.
All this aside, I’m not interested in “Chariots of the Gods?” for its scientific value, but for its worth as a story, and while Däniken may not be its originator, or most compelling teller, the tale is still an intriguing one. About 40,000 years ago, according to our Swiss friend, visitors from another, distant world came to earth. Whether they were just travellers, refugees from a distant war, or even ourselves from a time-travelling future, we cannot know; but they interacted with our distant, simian ancestors, making us into the conscious, intelligent creatures we are today. Thus, in essence, we are part-monkey, part-space god. Again, our guide is inconsistent as to how they achieved this alchemical union of natures; sometimes he thinks that they physically impregnated hominid women (Ronald Story, in his critique, hints at the engineering problems of giant aliens making sweet love to diminutive she-apes). More plausibly, perhaps they simply practised some form of genetic engineering.
They then departed, only to return thousands of years later to find that their creations had not lived up to their promise, they’d reverted to sub-human wickedness; they unleashed atomic weapons, described in the Mahabharata and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, killing off the failed experiments, so that they could then teach the rudiments of civilisation to the more promising specimens.
As evidence, we have anomalous artefacts from all over the world, whispering of a higher culture that created them, if only we know how to listen. There’s the map of the Turkish Admiral Piri Reis, based on older maps, which showed the then undiscovered landmass of Antarctica, prepared in 1513, surely copied from an ancient photo taken from orbit. Then there’s the rustproof Iron pillar of Meharauli near Delhi, which has stood for 4000 years. Exciting? Yes, but unfortunately these were two bits of evidence that Däniken himself had to disown, as he did in a Playboy interview; the technology used in making the pillar was impressive, but documented in pre-modern times, and the supposedly accurate map bore no relation to the Antarctic coastline; the admiral had guessed that South America was connected to the Southern tip of Africa, and had drawn the map accordingly. [Correction: A better explanation is that the Piri Reis map seems to have distorted the outline of South America in such a way that it resembles Antarctica to a casual observer, but it was probably not connected to Africa in the full map; for a full discussion check out this site http://xoomer.virgilio.it/dicuoghi/Piri_Reis/PiriReis_eng.htm or just read through the comments to this post]
Then there are the eyewitness accounts of the visits of the gods, take this one in Ezekiel for instance:
And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass. And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings. Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies. And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went. As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning. Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went. As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.
Däniken takes this to be a painstaking account of a spaceship, and in fact Josef Blumrich, an Austrian Engineer who worked for NASA at the time, found this idea so convincing that he left his job to spend more time researching “extraterrestrial visitors in ancient times”. He reconstructs the alien ship thusly:
I’ll leave it to you to decide how plausible that one is.
Some of Von Däniken’s most interesting ideas are also his wackiest. He believes that the Egyptians practised mummification so that they could preserve their bodies until their gods returned, and used their technologies to return life to their run-down bodies. Hopefully they could also reconstruct their brains, which would have been pulled out through their noses with hooked implements.
Like most of his successors in the Space God movement, Däniken invokes our alien ancestors to support modern ethical concerns- they want to warn us about the dangers of nuclear war, and they herald an age when we can rise above the divisive ideas of separate nation states. Ronald Story offers a cogent analysis of the appeal of the ancient astronauts theory, which I want to mention here because it forms one of the central ideas of this project.
Modern humans want to believe in the gods, but we fear that science is killing the magic that once filled the world. So we recast our myths in a superficially scientific form, breathing the wonder back into the material world, and plausibility back into religion. For all their references to the Mahabharata and Ancient Greece, Däniken and his crowd are most interested in interpreting the Bible, the central religious text of their culture.
They are people desperate in quest of that noblest and rarest of human boons, an experience of wonder, and when the U.F.O.s bestow it, they cannot but believe the Ultimate must lie encapsulated in them… These books maybe pitiful stumbling efforts in the morasses of technical and historical scholarship… But as religion they are worthy of respect as picture-language wrestling with the deep matters all persons face – or evade – in the stillness of the heart. On this level their scientific and historical failings may not matter so much. In what pertains to the ultimate beyond the circles of science and history, all language is picture-language only shadowing what is beyond words. It is, in the old Zen phrase, the finger pointing at the moon.
 Erich von Däniken, Chariots of the Gods?, Northumberland Press Limited, 1972; Page 57
 Ronald Story, The Space Gods Revealed, New English Library Limited, 1978; Page 20
 Ibid 49-52; 98
 Däniken, op cit. 25
 Story, op cit 130
 Ibid GR 136-137