I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Erich von Däniken: Charlatan or Charioteer?


by David Selden
Feb. 17, 2015

In 1967 Econ-Verlag published Erich von Däniken’s, Erinnerungen an die Zukunft (Memories of the Future), later to be translated as Chariots of the Gods. The title would go on to sell over 20 million copies worldwide. In this book and the 26 that followed, Däniken would expound upon his theory of “paleo-contact”, that human civilization was a consequence of our ancestors being visited by extraterrestrials. In the course of his literary career he would become a very wealthy man, posing the provocative question, “Was God an Astronaut?”

Erich von Däniken’s story begins in Switzerland during World War II. A studious child, fascinated by books on philosophy, theology and archeology he was earmarked for the priesthood. At an early age, the writer witnessed the crew of a bomber make an emergency landing. The vivid impression left on the young Däniken by this violent and traumatic event seems to have sparked a lifelong obsession with alien astronauts.

Having dropped out of the seminary and while still working as a hotel management trainee, he made his first trip to Egypt and was hypnotized by the majesty of its ancient art and architecture. Working variously as a ship’s steward, waiter and bartender, all the while pursuing his esoteric passions, Däniken poured over his books and began to travel extensively.

In 1960, whilst working as a waiter at the Hotel Ascot in Zurich, he met his wife to be, Elisabeth Skaja. Working his way up to manage the Restaurant Mirabeau in Bern and then, in 1964, the Hotel Rosenhügel in Davos, Erich von Däniken had already begun to publish various magazine and newspaper articles and was laboring feverishly on the manuscript of Chariots of the Gods, a work he believed would shatter “the base on which a mental edifice that seemed to be so perfect was constructed”i. Unable to afford his researches, he had already served a jail sentence for stealing from his employersii.

Astonished by the Great pyramid at Cheops, he began to speculate that it could only have been constructed using alien technology, that archeologists were willfully blind to the evidence that was staring him in the face. Von Däniken was to see this evidence everywhere, from the Nazca lines in Peru, to Old Testament accounts of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. From The Piri Reis Map and the statues of Easter Island, to the Antikythera Mechanism. Where the facts didn’t fit they were omitted or embroidered to match the theory, which was becoming all-encompassingiii.

Erich von Däniken’s ideas were not entirely original; Louis Pauwels’ and Jacques Bergier’s bestseller, The Morning of the Magicians, had proposed similar theories and the nascient Age of Aquarius was to become enchanted by Gudjeref, Crowley, Castanada and Leary – occult and pyschedelic intimations that science might not have all the answers, that mysterious concealed knowledge lay just beneath the surface of consensus reality.

Abandoning Occams Razor (simply put, the argument that the likeliest explanation is the simplest, the one with the least ‘ifs’), von Däniken believed, and sought to convince his readership, that given the scale of the universe it must be teaming with intelligent life. If this was indeed the case, this life must also have organized itself into civilizations, and these civilizations, one of them at least, must have not only visited Earth but have been mankind’s first Godsiv.

How else to explain the behaviour of the Cargo Cults of the Congo and of Micronesia, the apparently startling similarities between the ancient Mayan and Egyptian cultures, the recurring iconography of religious and mystical accounts of our origins? How else to account for Ra, Apollo, Quetzalcoatl and Christ? How else, if not to look for an explanation out there, somewhere beyond Sirius? After all, even the sober suited scientists were speculating about panspermia and alien lifev.

Mistaking correlation for causality and building a teetering tower of syllogisms, Däniken’s ethnocentric theory sought to connect all the dots. He would later go on to speculate that humanity itself was a result of interbreeding with these ancient astronauts, admonishing his readers that his book would take as much courage to read as it did to writevi.

As Gary Valentine Lachman states in Turn of Your Mind, “von Däniken’s odious speculation that, thousands of years after artificially inseminating some sub-human she-apes, the aliens returned and wiped out the unsuccessful offspring, allowing the true Homo sapiens to prosper, was not too far-fetched – as events in the Third Reich thirty years earlier had shown.vii

The manuscript was rejected by twenty publishers, with Econ accepting it only reluctantly after insisting that Wilhelm Roggersdorf, the pseudonym of dramaturge and journalist Wilhelm “Utz” Utermann (and producer of The Trapp Family in America) edit the text.viii Following its serialization in a Swiss newspaper (and much to the publisher’s surprise) Erinnerungen an die Zukunft became a bestseller in Germany in 1967. English translations (as Chariot of the Gods) followed in 1968 and 1969ix and proved equally successful.

Unfortunately for von Däniken he wasn’t immediately able to enjoy the fruits of his labour. In 1970 he was convicted and sentenced to three years for embezzlement, forgery and fraudx. Despite being described as a “liar and a criminal psychopath” by the court appointed examinerxi, he served only a fraction of his sentence, and with Atlantis becoming a totem for the nascent New Age movement and the hippies still flocking to Eastern gurus, his work found avid followers across the world.

Filmed in 1971 by Harald Reinl and nominated for an Academy Award, Chariots of the Gods was later dubbed by Rod Serling and presented by NBC as In Search of Ancient Astronauts (1973). With its groovy synth prog score by the Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra, it was to be the first of many television documentaries to explore von Däniken’s outlandish claims, and with each sales of the book flourished.

Chariots of the Gods was translated into many languages, including Bengali, and was to form the inspiration for an exhibition across several summers in Montreal, Un Monde Insolite. Erich von Däniken’s writings were also to have an influence on the UFO cult of the Raëlian Church as well as, tangentially, on the ideas of Graham Hancock and Daniel Pinchbeck.

In 1998 von Däniken co-founded the Archaeology, Astronautics and SETI Research Association (AAS RA) and in 2003 he opened a theme park in Switzerland, The Mystery Park, at Interlaken. Three years later it closed, having run into financial difficulties. A “360-degree entertainment project” comprising a video game, “live arena spectacle”, further theme parks, feature film and documentary (to be presented and narrated by Sir Roger Moore)xii is planned for 2012, assuming that the Mayan long count calendar has been misinterpreted.

As the astronomer Carl Sagan put it in his refutation of the theories put forward in Chariots of the Gods, “extraordinary theories require extraordinary proofs” and Erich von Däniken simply does not provide them. Nonetheless somewhere between the known knowns, known unknowns and the unknown-unknowns, down the Juggalo wormhole of anti-science, Däniken’s alternate creation myth continues to fascinate a new generation of stargazers. Who knows, it might even be true.

Links

The World of Mysteries of Erich von Däniken

A.A.S. R.A. - Archaeology, Astronautics and SETI Research Association

An Investigation into H.P. Lovecraft and the Invention of Ancient Astronauts,

Jason Colavito. Skeptic Magazine. 2004

Dogu figures: Jomon Jedi?

Forgetomori 2008

i Chariots of the Gods, Erich von Däniken. Putnam (USA publisher) 1968

iiTurn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and The Dark Side Of The Age of Aquarius,

Gary Valentine Lachman, The Disinformation Company. 2003

iii Däniken claimed that an allegedly non-rusting iron pillar in Delhi, India was evidence of extraterrestrial influence. Later, he admitted in a Playboy interview that the pillar was rusty and man-made, and that as far as supporting his hypotheses goes "we can forget about this iron thing."

 

After a long international career exhibiting video installation and photography, David Selden renounced the art world in favor of the far less superficial drag scene and became intimately involved with a number of notorious London fetish clubs. ‘Retiring’ to Berlin in 2007 having run out of pseudonyms, he has written about music for Dorfdisco and about art for Whitehot Magazine as well as contributing numerous catalogue essays and translations for a variety of publications and websites. His misadventures in the world of anti-music can be endured at affeprotokoll.tumblr.com