Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Däniken

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 Daniken calls it “the Japanese statue of Tokomai” with “modern fastenings and eye apertures on its helmet”. It’s a Dogu figurine.

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.

Cave art discovered in the Sahara desert by another Ancient Astronaut proponent, Henri Lhote

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.

Three Types of Ghost Story

Hill Woman in BlackI’ve been reading a few ghost stories lately. Most recently Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (having already seen Nigel Kneale’s 1989 TV film, and the recent Hammer version), though I found it wanting in a way I didn’t with, say, Dark Matter, or my recent re-read of The Turn of the Screw. Thinking about why this was has led to a little bit of theorising about three types of ghost stories and how they work. So here goes.

The first, and purest, type of ghost story revels entirely in the protagonist’s horror of the supernatural. To make it work, the ordinariness of both the protagonist and their everyday world has to be clearly established, so when the supernatural makes its appearance, it feels truly weird and frightening. In this type of ghost story, the ‘ghost’ doesn’t even have to be a ghost, in the sense of a undead human spirit. M R James’s stories are probably the best example of this type, and his ‘ghosts’ are more often demons or elementals — embodied curses or prohibitions — and when they are human, as in, for instance, ‘Number 13’ or ‘Count Magnus’, they’re often supernaturally-tinged sorcerers or necromancers. This type of ghost story is all about technique — the way the supernatural is hinted at, built up, and finally revealed. The only emotion required of the protagonist is terror; details of his or her inner life just get in the way. You don’t get a lot of human insight from M R James’s stories, but you do get a good ghost story.

The Woman from The Woman in Black

from Nigel Kneale’s 1989 adaptation of The Woman in Black

The second type is as much about the protagonist’s horror at the display of human qualities, such as despair or sorrow, driven to such an extreme they’ve become supernatural. The Woman in Black is of this type. (The book is, anyway. I’d say the 2012 Hammer version, upping the cinematic shock value, turned the Woman into a far more demonic creature than she is in the book.) The bulk of conventional Victorian ghost stories are of this type, too. There, a ghost lingers beyond death because either it has been wronged, or has done wrong, and needs to set things right before it can move on. With The Woman in Black, there’s no longer that Victorian feeling of a moral order keeping certain dead souls from moving on till they’ve done what they’re supposed to; rather, it’s the Woman herself, so consumed by sorrow, anger and the need for revenge that she can’t pass on. The thing about this type of ghost story is that the protagonist is still looking on the ghost as something separate — as purely a horror. Things change slightly in the last chapter of The Woman in Black (the narrator comes to experience something of what made the Woman what she is) but not enough to take this story to the next type; the Woman is still seen as something exceptional and horrific, a twisted and rare form of human being, something to be pitied and feared, not empathised with.

The Haunting of Hill House coverThe third type is about how the protagonist’s own despair or sadness is brought to the fore by encounters with a ghost, until they experience it as a manifestation of their own inner world. The ghost still exists to embody (in a ghostly, disembodied way) supernaturally-distorted human qualities, but as much as the protagonist is haunted by the ghost, they’re haunted by something inside themselves too. The ghost and the protagonist’s inner life become entangled to the point where they’re indistinguishable. This is the type of story where the ghost needn’t exist at all — or it can exist in that Tzvetan Todorov hinterland where the story never makes it clear whether the ghost is a ‘real’ ghost or is just an externalisation of the protagonist’s own mental state. Listing examples, I find all my favourites: The Haunting of Hill House, The Influence, The Turn of the Screw.

It has to be said these three types have permeable walls. (Ghosts being ghosts, they’re not going to be stopped from wandering through walls anyway.) Jonathan Miller, after all, turned M R James’s ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ from a ghost story of the first type to the third, by emphasising how the basic character-type of so many of M R James’s protagonists (academic, reserved, distant and somewhat disapproving of lesser human beings) is exactly what makes them so vulnerable to the terror of an isolating ghostly visitation.

Woman in Black 2012Overall, I tend to like examples from the first and third types. The first work best as short stories — shocks work best when kept short. (Cinematic ghost stories, more and more, tend to be overlong examples of the first type, with nothing but shock after shock after shock. I ended up fast-forwarding much of the second half of the 2012 Woman in Black, searching for morsels of story, because I got bored of being supposedly shocked.) The third type mixes the supernatural with the psychological, which is how I prefer it, and this tends to be best when done at length, with plenty of build-up to establish both the protagonist’s psychology and the ‘normality’ of their world.

The trouble, for me, with the second type, is it’s basically disapproving. It’s about marking certain humans (undead ones, admittedly) as separate from ‘us’ (as represented by the protagonist and the rest of a quietly-ordered, functioning society). It seems to be saying that most of us don’t experience extremes of emotion, particularly negative emotion, so we can safely regard those who do as alien, other, horrific. But saying this is also saying that as soon as we experience such extremes, we have to regard ourselves as now separate, alienated, and horrific, too. This is perhaps a very English thing, where reserve and social propriety can make for a ridigly-defined norm, where extreme emotion is met with an embarrassment and disapproval close to horror — meaning you have to repress such emotions, to the point of being haunted by them. Perhaps that’s why the English write so many ghost stories.

Lovecraftian Doctor Who

It struck me recently how Lovecraftian my favourite period of Doctor Who (the first half of Tom Baker’s reign) was. I don’t know if there was ever an explicit influence, but the fact it was a science fiction show being made during a British horror boom (the early seventies), probably led to a certain amount of natural crossover.

Script editor Robert Holmes certainly brought in (or encouraged) all sorts of horror and sci-fi influences, mostly filmic ones — King Kong  in “Robot”, The Thing from Another World in “The Seeds of Doom”, The Beast With Five Fingers in “The Hand of Fear”, Frankenstein in “The Brain of Morbius”, for instance. He wanted to “darken things up a little”, saying “I don’t think it would be unfair to accuse us of aiming towards a slightly ‘gothic’ area. Tom always called it ‘Who-noir’.” (quoted in Classic Who: The Hinchcliffe Years by Adrian Rigelsford)

Another thing that led to a Lovecraftian feel could have been Holmes’s attempt to shrug off good/evil dichotomies. According to producer Philip Hinchcliffe, Holmes “had a theory that there’s no such thing as good or evil in the universe; it’s all just part of a process, and the side you fall into simply depends on how you’re made. He was fascinated by the notion of an organic life-form which lands on earth and causes havoc because it’s neither intentionally bad or good, it’s just that its ‘process’ conflicts with ours and appears evil by comparison.” (from Classic Who, again.) This is pretty much spelled out by Sutekh: “Your evil is my good, Doctor. I am Sutekh the Destroyer. Where I tread I leave nothing but dust and darkness. That, I find good.”

Of course, Doctor Who could never have addressed the underlying cosmic horror outlook of Lovecraft. The Doctor is a heroic figure, and it’s one of the tenets of Lovecraftian horror that people can never be heroic — cannot, in fact, ever be anything other than gnats and flies before the terrible forces that rule our universe. (“In my presence, you are an ant, a termite — abase yourself, you grovelling insect!” — the ever-quotable Sutekh.) Doctor Who, on the other hand, had a fundamentally optimistic nature (necessarily so, perhaps, being a kid’s show). When the Doctor defeats Sutekh, it’s with the feeling of things being returned to their rightful balance, rather than a brief avoidance of an eventually inevitable human defeat (which is how “The Call of Cthulhu” ends). And just consider how Lovecraft would have viewed the story of one of the Doctor’s human companions — more as the sort of alien abduction perpetrated in “The Whisperer in Darkness” or “The Shadow Out of Time” than a romp through space & time, with the Doctor, perhaps, as a sort of charlatan Nyarlathotep figure.

But it’s surprising how much of a similar feel the alien creatures had during these few seasons to Lovecraft’s creations:

insect-like creatures who can fly through the vacuum of space — the Mi-Go (Lovecraft), and the Wirrn (Doctor Who)…

a man transformed into a giant, lumbering, tentacled monster intent on wiping out all human life — the creature at the end of “The Dunwich Horror” (Lovecraft), and Keller transformed into a Krynoid at the end of “The Seeds of Doom” (Doctor Who)…

an alien entity who wants nothing more than to destroy all life in the universe, but who has been imprisoned in a tomb on Earth — Cthulhu (Lovecraft) and Sutekh (“The Pyramids of Mars”)…

a created lifeform, intended as a servant/soldier, destroys the race that created it — Shoggoths (At the Mountains of Madness) and the nascent Daleks (“Genesis of the Daleks”) who, in their naked form, are rather Lovecraftian sea-slug-like slimy blobs…

an ancient alien lifeform, buried for millions of years, is uncovered and comes to life again — At the Mountains of Madness, “The Hand of Fear”.

To me, the most Lovecraftian creatures are the Fendahleen — perhaps just because they spring from the same impulse to try and create a monster that doesn’t simply look like a man in a suit (in the case of Doctor Who) or which isn’t just a slight alteration of the human form, but is designed to be totally alien to everything we ever think of as human (in the case of Lovecraft’s monsters).

Of course, a more direct source of influence on “The Image of the Fendahl”, with its ancient, alien powers being released by scientists examining a 12 million year old skull, is Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit. But the Lovecraftianism of Nigel Kneale’s output is a whole nother subject (the meteorites of Quatermass II — nicked virtually wholesale by Doctor Who in “Spearhead from Space” (another Robert Holmes story) — to me recalls Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out Of Space”, for instance.)

So, to recap: Sutekh is Nyarlathotep, Zygons are Deep Ones, and the Doctor ought to faint more often.