Those of us who are old enough to remember the 1970s will recall the hype that surrounded Erich von Daniken’s book The Chariots of the Gods. Back in those dimly distant days before mere mortals had access to the World Wide Web when we were still unaware that the Lizard people were running the world and the Illuminati were still just a disbanded group of Freemasons from the Eighteenth Century, von Daniken’s radical ideas were a sensation that spawned a decade long obsession with revealing the secret powers of the ancients.
Up until we were enlightened by von Daniken’s explanation of our history we had erroneously believed that the Pyramids at Giza had been built by the Egyptians but after The Chariots of the Gods we knew that they had been constructed by advanced alien visitors that travelled across time and space just to knock up a bunch of monuments before blasting back into space only to be immortalized in the hieroglyphs and rock carvings of ancient peoples around the globe. In one deft stroke Erich von Daniken had solved all of the biggest mysteries of the history of humanity.
I hadn’t thought of The Chariots of the Gods for decades until recently I was asked to review a documentary website; Documentary Storm, where I found a comprehensive catalogue of conspiracy theory videos. Scrolling through the list I found the 1970 documentary version of The Chariots of the Gods that was later dubbed in English and released as In Search of Ancient Astronauts which was narrated by Rod Serling1. My interest piqued, I went to my favorite source of data, Google, and was astounded to find that Erich von Daniken is set to make a comeback. There are plans for a new DVD version of The Chariots of the Gods as well as a video game and, most astounding of all, a Chariots of the Gods Theme Park which has been on again off again since 2003 seems set to reopen in 20132.
Now I was intrigued. How could The Chariots of the Gods be making a comeback? After all, hadn’t archeology found simpler, more mundane solutions to many of von Daniken’s mysteries? I found an old copy of The Chariots of the Gods (there are over 20 million of them floating around the second hand bookstore and thrift shops of the western world) and revisited our alien assisted history. The book begins by a long drawn out justification for thinking that there is intelligent life in other parts of the universe and that we aren’t alone. He then goes into a simplistic explanation of relativity which is impressive for a guy who was a hotelier by trade and left school at 19 to pursue a life of petty crime (true story). In fact von Daniken’s lack of scholarship attracted the title of sensationalist kook as far back as the 1960s when he first started promoting his hypothesis and it has since proven to be his Achilles’ Heel as the wonders that he claimed were of extraterrestrial origin have gradually been found to be the work of very earthly peoples after all.
I also hope for the continuing popularity of books like Chariots of the Gods in high school and college logic courses, as object lessons in sloppy thinking. I know of no recent books so riddled with logical and factual errors as the works of von Däniken.
-Carl Sagan, Foreword to The Space Gods Revealed
After this confused attempt at explaining quantum mechanics (complete with impressive looking equations) von Daniken heads into the main thrust of is hypothesis which is the focus of the documentary, aliens came to Earth in our prehistoric past. I have never quite grasped what the aliens wanted but von Daniken cherry picks his way through the world’s mythology to support his version of events. Drawing heavily on the Biblical accounts of Ezekiel and the Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh with a smattering of most of the myths from Egypt, China and even Scandinavia, von Daniken paints a convincing portrait of primitive peoples trying desperately to interpret their experience of a vastly more advanced culture of spacemen.
In the intervening years so many of von Daniken’s supposed proofs have been proven to be wrong that he has had to do a bit of back pedaling about his position and in a recent interview he said, “They also say that I wrote that the Space Gods did this or that – well, I never did. I never wrote that Nazca is an ancient spaceport. I just said it looks the part.” in an attempt to reposition himself with academia while still asserting that he “still believes Space Gods visited Earth in the past, because there are just too many legends, too many strange artifacts that are simply incompatible with present scientific views on the development of mankind”3.
As he has said, von Daniken didn’t say that Nazca was an “ancient spaceport” but he did give it a lot of spin. What he actually said was: “What is wrong with the idea that the lines were laid out to say to the ‘gods’: ‘Land here! Everything has been prepared as ‘you’ ordered’? The builders of the geometrical figures may have had no idea what they were doing. But perhaps they knew perfectly well what the ‘gods’ needed in order to land”4. In a nutshell what is wrong with it is that it is fallacious and the real purpose of the lines on the Nazca Plains was part of religious practices involving the worship of deities associated with the availability of water, which directly related to the success and productivity of crops. He interpreted the lines as sacred paths leading to places where these deities could be worshiped. The figures were symbols representing animals and objects meant to invoke the gods’ aid in supplying water5.
Similar, terrestrial explanations have been found for most of von Daniken’s more spectacular claims and now we know that the statues on Easter Island were carved and moved by Polynesians between 1250 and 1500 AD to represent their deceased ancestors and the statue carving ceased when all of the trees on the island had been cut down to act as rollers for the giant stones. The full manufacturing process has been investigated even down to finding broken statues that never made it into their appointed positions. In a similar way modern archaeologists have shown that the construction of the Pyramids was well within the purview of the Egyptian’s engineering skill.
Carl Sagan said that von Daniken’s principal thesis is that our ancient ancestors were dummies and I find this to be the most disappointing attitude that abounds among conspiracy theorists generally- that people are generally ignorant. The facts are that so called primitive people have had a far greater technical ability than they have been given credit for and instead of looking for extraterrestrial sources for human inspiration we should be celebrating the intelligence of our forebears.
I remember watching The Chariots of the Gods when I was a kid and being convinced that the aliens would come back some day. Since then I have chosen the more credulous path of admiring the wit and skill of ancient people, the inventiveness of their stories and the sheer coolness of their artworks. I am sure that the aliens will appreciate how amazing humans are too whenever they do get here. No one believed in the existence of extraterrestrial life more than Carl Sagan but he was scathing of The Chariots of the Gods so I will give the good doctor the last word.
“writing as careless as von Däniken’s, whose principal thesis is that our ancestors were dummies, should be so popular is a sober commentary on the credulousness and despair of our times. But the idea that beings from elsewhere will save us from ourselves is a very dangerous doctrine – akin to that of the quack doctor whose ministrations prevent the patient from seeing a physician competent to help him and perhaps to cure his disease.” -Carl Sagan, Foreword to The Space Gods Revealed
For those of you who haven’t seen The Chariots of the Gods you will find it at:
4. The Chariots of the Gods- von Daniken, 1968