I thought, after writing about Margaret Murray’s Witch Cult in Western Europe — a work of questionable scholarship that nevertheless went on to influence popular culture, including the fiction of H P Lovecraft — I’d write about a similar book, from half a century later, which was actually (if indirectly) influenced by Lovecraft.
It’s likely, though, that von Däniken never read Lovecraft. Jason Colavito, in his short book Origins of the Space Gods (which he has made available as a free ebook), traces the “Ancient Astronaut theory” from Helena Blavatsky and Charles Fort to Lovecraft and then to Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels’ The Morning of the Magicians (1960). (Bergier and Pauwels popularised Lovecraft in France, so the influence there is undeniable.) Morning of the Magicians became something of a countercultural source text, though von Däniken at first forgot to mention it in his own book’s bibliography, until a lawsuit reminded him how liberally he’d borrowed from it. But, as Gary Lachman points out in The Dedalus Book of the 1960s: Turn Off Your Mind, von Däniken was no stranger to borrowing, as the international research trips he’d taken whilst writing Chariots had been funded by a series of falsified bank references and credit reports, which led to von Däniken’s imprisonment, for a short time, in 1970. (According to the New York Times, a court psychiatrist described him as “a prestige‐seeker, a liar and an unstable and criminal psychopath with a hysterical character”.) And this, according to his Wikipedia entry, was not his first court appearance on similar charges.
As if this weren’t already so different from the rather cosy-looking Margaret Murray in her knitted shawl and her background in Egyptology, von Däniken is, from the start, resolutely anti-academic. He hasn’t the least interest in even the appearance of scholarship, and instead begins by attacking “traditional” archaeologists, who, in his view, do nothing but:
“…stick a couple of old potsherds together, search for one or two adjacent cultures, stick a label on the restored find and—hey, presto!—once again everything fits splendidly into the approved pattern of thoughts.”
Such closed minds, von Däniken proclaims, will put his book “on the Index of those books which are better left unmentioned”. “It took courage to write this book,” he says at the start, “and it will take courage to read it.”
He’s very much a with-me-or-against-me kind of chap.
Von Däniken’s own method mostly consists of rhetoric rather than proof. Although it’s usually published nowadays without a trailing question mark, the first translated title, Chariots of the Gods? (it came out in England in 1969, and the US in 1970), is a fair representation of its approach. (Its original title was Erinnerungen an die Zukunft, which can be translated as Memories of the Future.) Von Däniken’s technique is to find oddities, puzzles, and things that the average reader might be surprised to find in the ancient world, then point at them and say, “Well, who can say it’s not aliens?”
It’s a worthwhile question to ask. Once it was established that space travel was possible, and that more advanced civilisations may exist on other planets, it is worth asking if they’ve visited us in the past. But von Däniken is too invested in the answer being “yes” to take a measured approach or look for more likely alternative explanations. It’s aliens or nothing. This can result in him appearing a little ridiculous at times, or merely hectoring at others. Gary Lachman characterises him as “a pub pontificator, laying down the law with a slam on the bar”, and this does seem to fit. It’s tempting to do a von Däniken-style revision of von Däniken himself in summarising his approach:
“…stick a couple of old oddities together, search for one or two presuppositions, slap a theory on it and—hey, presto!—once again everything fits splendidly into the von Däniken pattern of thoughts!”
Certainly, once you start checking what he says with even a superficial internet search, you see holes not just in his arguments but his premises. Too often it’s like what Wolfgang Pauli said of a fellow scientist’s new theory: “It’s not even wrong.”
For instance, he claims the Ark of the Covenant was “an electric conductor of several hundred volts”. Which is meaningless, as a conductor doesn’t have a voltage. (The idea, though, that the Ark was a sort of primitive capacitor (two sheets of statically-charged metal separated by wood, an insulator), has been around since 1745. See the Jewish Bible Quarterly, “An Electric Ark: The History of an Interpretation”, by Stephen A Newman.)
To give another example, von Däniken says that carvings on the ancient Gate of the Sun at Tiwanaku depict a legend:
“It tells of a golden spaceship that came from the stars; in it came a woman, whose name was Oryana, to fulfill the task of becoming the Great Mother of the earth. Oryana had only four fingers, which were webbed. Great Mother Oryana gave birth to 70 earth children, then she returned to the stars.”
I was particularly interested in learning more about this myth, because it sounds similar to the plot of David Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor. But I could find no reference at all to “Oryana”, except in another book about alien visitors, which said she may be same as “Orichana” or “Orejona”, but even these names only seem to be mentioned by other, later books on a similar theme. I couldn’t find anything about this myth of a Great Mother from the stars. And, from what I can find out about the Gate of the Sun from more conventional accounts, it features a male god, and no “golden spaceship”. Here’s the carving:
Turning his attention to myth, von Däniken finds evidence of alien visitations everywhere. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, he focuses on a passage where “the sun god” seizes Gilgamesh’s companion Enkidu, and lies “like lead” on his body. “How on earth could the old chroniclers have known that the weight of the body becomes as heavy as lead at a certain acceleration?” von Däniken demands, ignoring the fact that it’s a common metaphor. (This incident is from the seventh tablet of the epic, and actually occurs in a dream Enkidu relates to Gilgamesh. This translation has the phrase “press’d me down”, with nothing about “lead” at all.)
Eventually I gave up checking von Däniken’s evidence, in part because I got fed up of finding he was so often vague (even his bibliography gets authors’ names wrong), and also because von Däniken’s Wikipedia entry rebuts so many of the major points, it started to feel too much like work that had already been done.
Most disappointing from my own point of view, though, is that von Däniken doesn’t really spin out his own theories into something even imaginatively interesting. He wants to ask lots of open questions, nod significantly, and pour scorn on any potential opposition, but he’s not as forthcoming on his own juicy stuff.
His pronouncements as to what these ancient aliens might have done when they came to Earth are framed speculatively, in terms of what we might do, if we travelled to another, more primitive, planet. Impress them with our technology, teach them a few laws, perhaps get them to work for us, and, of course:
“A few specially selected women would be fertilized by the astronauts. Thus a new race would arise that skipped a stage in natural evolution.”
Um, what? Von Däniken presents the idea as so self-evidently obvious that he never questions the likelihood that human astronauts travelling to another planet, or aliens coming to ours, would attempt to procreate with another, intelligent or semi-intelligent, but entirely different species. And that it might actually produce viable offspring. And that those offspring would be superior to the existing stock. It’s all a bit bizarre, and it’s a pity, here, that von Däniken didn’t read Lovecraft, because at least Lovecraft had his alien races lift mankind up the evolutionary ladder by fiddling with their genetics, not actually, you know… their jeans.
There was a copy of Chariots of the Gods? in our house when I was growing up, and I would every so often pick it up and look at the photos (which are the best part of it, really — or, I should say, the captions are) and wonder at the idea that our distant past might be full of hints of ancient visitors and buried, stone-encrusted fragments of advanced technology. But for some reason I never actually read the book at the time. I think I can now see why. It’s so much better to leave the idea as a distant imaginative possibility than to have it so disappointingly presented in von Däniken’s (often surprisingly quite boring) style, and find how lazy, inaccurate, and uninteresting he so often is.
(And I’ve come to feel it’s far more interesting to think that human beings — our distant ancestors — did all these odd, crazy and wondrous things in the past. Saying aliens helped them actually detracts from the wonder and oddity. Even the craziness.)
The idea of ancient astronauts was already in the culture by the time von Däniken’s book came out, thanks to Lovecraft and those inspired by him, as well as Nigel Kneale, whose Quatermass and the Pit is far better than anything von Däniken comes up with. But Chariots had a definite, if minor, impact on popular culture. Rod Serling fronted a US TV series based on the book in 1973, In Search of Ancient Astronauts, and its popularity perhaps fed into a few films, though the only ones I can think of are Stargate, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and apparently Ridley Scott has mentioned it in connection with Prometheus. So, we’re not exactly talking top-grade cultural material.
It’s certainly not the source-text Margaret Murray’s book was, though Chariots of the Gods? and its like have had perhaps a wider, continued cultural impact. Not, though, from the text itself, but the ideas its hints and questions might inspire.
Von Däniken’s technique is, in a way, similar to Lovecraft’s, who wrote that “no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care & verisimilitude of an actual hoax” — for instance, peppering it with enough references to facts and genuine mysteries that it bamboozles the reader into wondering if the story being told is actually real. But Lovecraft was writing fiction, and did it far better.