How Chariots Of The Gods Became A Best Seller: A Sketchy Tale Of Ancient Aliens
Erich Von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods told us that aliens were responsible for everything from the pyramids at Giza to the statues of Easter Island. The best-seller from 1968 was popular around the globe, with millions of readers believing its theories, an early example of the passion instilled by seductive, widely-distributed pseudoscience. It's a phenomenon we wrestle with to this day, whether it's hokey TV we kind-of want to believe (like Ancient Aliens) or the so-called "fake news" that simply confirms a worldview we'd like to be true.
Before we had infinite cable channels and the internet to put questionable information at our fingertips, we had Chariots of the Gods, its sequels, and the documentaries it inspired. In the late '60s, many people were open to alternative thinking, and looking for a narrative that explained the cosmic mysteries they'd pondered in smoke-filled dorm rooms at 3 AM, and Chariots of the Gods scratched that itch.
Von Däniken Asked Some Reasonable Questions; He Just Gave Flimsy Answers
Have you ever been curious about Earth's artifacts? Why massive ancient temples across the globe are pyramidal? Or why cave drawings throughout the ancient world looks as if they show beings from the sky? In 1968, Von Däniken sought to explain that these aren't just coincidences, but a map to the stars. Chariots of the Gods sent shockwaves through the extra-terrestrial- and UFO-obsessed underground, and it made a splash in mainstream culture as well. Had someone finally cracked the secret art, science, and religion all in one book?
According to academics, no, not at all.
Chariots of the Gods was cast as pseudoscience by many who read it, and as much as people got into reading about our god-like alien overlords they were just as into debunking the theories that von Däniken put forth in this book. The saga of Chariots of the Gods, its claims, and fallout are more than just the rise and fall of a weird piece of pseudoscience. It tells the story of belief, fraud, and the lengths that people will go to find meaning in the universe.
Chariot Of The Gods Explains Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Historical Visits With Extraterrestrials, Sort Of
It's no small task to explain life, the universe, and everything in one book, but von Däniken makes a go of it in 267 pages. In 12 chapters he attempts to explain that many, if not all, of the ancient structures and artifacts that seem too technologically advanced to be created by human hand were either built by extraterrestrial visitors or that their construction was guided by visitors from beyond the stars.
The Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, the "mysteries of South America" -- to von Däniken they're all proof that mankind received help from a group of visitors trying to help us grow technologically and intellectually so that we can continue spreading knowledge throughout the universe. In turn, making us into the chariot-riding space gods of tomorrow.
To prove his hypothesis the book is filled with facts and figures that look correct if you're not a mathematician, and when those calculations don't work von Däniken falls back on making wild claims without backing them up. For instance, when von Däniken explains that when the ancient Sumerians wrote about the Earth in Gilgamesh they did so with the help of ancient aliens. He writes:
Some living creature must have seen the Earth from a great height. The account is too accurate to have been the product of pure imagination. Who could have possibly said that the land looked like porridge and the sea like a water-trough, if some conception of the globe from above had not existed? Because the Earth actually does look like a jig-saw puzzle of porridge and water-troughs from a great height.
Von Däniken Claimed That The Old Testament Provides Major Proof Of Alien Visitation
There's a lot to unpack in Chariot of the Gods, but some of von Däniken's most powerful claims come straight from the Bible. He notes that throughout the Old Testament characters are being visited by beings in the form of burning bushes, clouds that are also on fire, and multi-faced creatures who speak from the sky. Angels? No, aliens. Most notably, he writes that the prophet Ezekiel came face to face with a group of extraterrestrial beings.
After including text from the Old Testament that states Ezekiel came face to face with "four living creatures" who looked human aside from each of their heads having four faces and a sheen that "sparkled like the color of burnished brass," von Däniken writes that what's really being described is Ezekiel witnessing alien beings disembarking from a mode of interstellar transportation.
Von Däniken doesn't get to the bottom of who spoke to Ezekiel or what kind of beings they were, but in Chapter Four he does note that whoever these beings are they're happy to deliver important information about technical innovations, be it the Ark of the Covenant or electricity.
The Books Posits That Massive Stone Structures Egypt And Easter Island Weren't Created By Entirely Human Hands
Van Däniken strongly doubts that the Egyptians were able to build the pyramids, create surreal art, and lay out a society without the help of someone, or something, from another planet. In Chapter Seven of the text, he hypothesizes that the engravings found inside ancient temples are actually interpretations of spaceship interiors and the alien travelers who helped jumpstart civilization. He notes the remarkable parallels of temple inscriptions and photos of astronauts inside their capsules.
Aside from suggesting that the art of ancient Egypt was created strictly to interpret installer travel, van Däniken's questions about the construction of major structures across the world are valid. These questions essentially boil down to: why are these giant steps so giant? And, what's up with the large rocks? Which are questions that we're still asking today, although most historians have come to the conclusion that the pyramids (be they in Egypt or South America) were built by masses of human workers or slaves, many of whom died to create these ornate structures.
Von Däniken Wrote That Sodom Was Destroyed By A Nuclear Bomb
The book of Genesis tells us that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God for being settlements filled with sexual deviants. Homosexuality ran rampant, there was an abundance of idleness, cats were marrying dogs, that sort of thing. After failing to find 50 righteous people in the city of Sodom, two angels are tasked with destroying the whole shebang while escorting Abraham's nephew Lot and his family to safety while God rained fire and brimstone on the city. Not so, says Chariot of the Gods.
On pages 46 and 47 of the book, von Däniken posits that Sodom was actually destroyed deliberately by an atomic bomb because a group of aliens needed to get rid of "some dangerous fissionable material" and "a human brood they found unpleasant." He goes on to state that the reason Lot's wife turned to salt is because she looked directly into the heart of the "atomic sun," while the rest of the Lot's family were protected by the mountains.
Carl Sagan Found The Book To Be 'Sloppy'
The biggest issue that many people in the scientific community have with Chariot of the Gods is the way in which von Däniken will state something as fact without backing it up with sources or research. Astronomer and all around helpful science man Carl Sagan called the theories found in the book “object lessons in sloppy thinking.” While some of von Däniken’s "mysteries" can be easily disproven, it's hard to separate the facts that he just gets wrong from assertions that so outlandish that they're not worth arguing. While speaking with Playboy, Sagan reiterated his problems with von Däniken, namely that he does zero research and simply attributes everything to aliens. He said:
Every time he [von Däniken] sees something he can’t understand, he attributes it to extraterrestrial intelligence, and since he understands almost nothing, he sees evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence all over the planet.
Von Däniken's Claims About Easter Island Were Debunked Before He Wrote 'Chariots Of The Gods'
While writing about von Däniken's work in 1987, author Stephen M. Epstein noted that the research behind Chariot of the Gods was sorely lacking. Epstein's biggest bone of contention with von Däniken was his refusal to do the smallest amount of investigation into something he didn't understand, preferring instead to just chalk it up to aliens. Most notably, while discussing the carvings at Easter Island von Däniken writes that there's no way that islanders could have cut the statues out of rock and transported them to their sites without wheels, let alone sat them up straight.
Epstein notes that the answers to von Däniken's questions were already out there in the book Easter Island, AkuAku by Thor Heyerdahl, published in 1958. In AkuAku, Heyerdahl experiments with recreating the circumstances under which Easter Islanders would have worked in order to better understand how the statues were carved and placed. He found that two six-man teams working in shifts could carve a 15 foot statue in about a year, and that a team of 12 men were able to set the statues upright in 18 days with three 15-foot wooden levers to pry the giant upward a quarter of an inch at a time.
Von Däniken not only had this information available to him, but he cites the book as a source in Chariot of the Gods, so it's not that he didn't know about Heyerdahl's research, he just didn't include the parts that would contradict his thesis.
'Chariot Of The Gods' Shows A Lack Of Faith In Humanity
The more distance that we get from the initial release of Chariot of the Gods the more debunking and dunking there is to do of this collection of pseudoscience. As fascinating as von Däniken's claims are, it's clear that he has no faith in humanity. While writing about the Mayan people on page 66 of the book he notes that it's difficult to believe that "a jungle people" were able to calculate the duration of terrestrial and Venusian years without help from an "electronic brain."
Von Däniken's lack of faith in humanity in this collection of theories is stunning. His hypothesis about alien gods descending from the sky to make life easier for humanity undoes the accomplishments of indigenous peoples, an act that flirts, perhaps heavily, with racism. As much as we may want to believe in beings from another solar system who have our best interests in heart, our inventions, our architecture, our art belongs to us for better or for worse.