Jan 7, 2022

Erich von Däniken: meet the cult writer whose 'ancient alien' thesis inspired Eternals

Chariots of the Gods – subtitled, “Was God An Astronaut?”
The author of the 60s cult classic – and 43 other books – on his 'God is an astronaut' theory, inspiring Marvel and evidence for UFOs

Sam Leith
The Telegraph
January 6, 2022

“Hello,” says the brisk and slightly accented voice on the telephone. “I’m Erich von Däniken.”

I can feel a little shiver of excitement pass through my body – and then back in time, to 14-year-old me, entranced by a garish paperback with his name on the cover. “NGL”, as the young people say: when I was asked to interview von Däniken, my first feeling was astonishment that this titanic figure in late 20th-century popular publishing was still with us.

For those younger readers who won’t remember his work, von Däniken wrote the cult non-fiction book of all cult non-fiction books. His 1968 Chariots of the Gods – subtitled, “Was God An Astronaut?” – was a fixture on every 1970s bookshelf and its argument was propounded in any number of dope-clouded student common-rooms. That argument, as the subtitle indicates, was that aliens visited our planet in the distant past, and that all sorts of archaeological oddities from the Great Pyramid at Giza to the mysterious Nazca Lines in Peru are testament to their presence.

And this spry Swiss gentleman, to whom I speak a few months before his 87th birthday, in no way resiles from that conviction. He believes that aliens mated with ancient humans and tampered with our genomes, gave us various technological and scientific leg-ups, and then left Earth with the promise to return; which, he thinks, half a century of UFO sightings indicates is a promise they made good on. He says the folk memory of these aliens – with their fiery ships descending from the heavens – is encoded in the ancient texts of religions all over the world, from the book of Ezekiel to the Mahabharata and the Epic of Gilgamesh.

We’re talking because von Däniken’s work is credited with having inspired the new Marvel movie The Eternals – or, at least, the 1970s comic books by Marvel’s Jack “King” Kirby on which it was based. That story has as its premise that a team of superpowered aliens came to earth in 5,000BC, as part of an extraterrestrial mission to guide the development of intelligent life on the planet – which is essentially the von Däniken thesis. There’s no doubt that Kirby was influenced by Chariots of the Gods, but its author has never, in turn, heard of him. “The Eternals? It’s a book?” says von Däniken. “I didn’t know about that, but I’m happy to hear about it.”

The ideas that inspired Kirby, says von Däniken, germinated in him as the son of devout Catholic Swiss parents in a Jesuit boarding school. Crammed with Latin and Greek and immersed in the Bible, he became intrigued as to whether other religious texts shared the same myths.

“I learned [that] most of these communities in the past speak about beings descending from the sky, with smoke, fire, trembling, loud noise et cetera,” he says. “Now, being a believer in God, I said, the real God would be something spiritual, he [would] never use a vehicle in which you move from point A to point B.” And so, he said, he hit on the idea that these texts weren’t describing God, but alien visitors worshipped as gods by our uncomprehending forebears.

The idea possessed him. While working as the manager of a hotel in Davos (“I loved it! Today, I could still stand behind the reception desk, behind the bar. The hotel business was wonderful”), he scratched away at the manuscript of what was to become Chariots of the Gods. Within months of its publication, it had gone into orbit. By 1970 Der Spiegel identified Dänikitis as a new mania gripping the world. He has developed the thesis in 43 subsequent books, though he’s a bit vague as to what new evidence occasioned not one or two but dozens of subsequent books on the same theme.

Perhaps the oddest thing about von Däniken, though, is not that he thinks human evolution has been guided by benevolent extraterrestrial intervention or that the world’s religions are all essentially a cargo-cult for space aliens – it's that believing all that, he still claims to be a firm believer in God. I mean, here’s a man who, rightly or wrongly, has offered an anthropological account of religious belief – and yet he himself is no atheist: “I am still a firm believer in God, but I have no idea what God is.”

The ancient-aliens theory, too, is in some ways a matter of faith. He opens our conversation by declaring, forthrightly: “I confess: I have no material evidence. I have tried to prove this by indications, I have hundreds, some very good, some better indications, but I have no material proof.” He adds: “The indications came from old writings, holy and non-holy writings, where we can clearly say: somebody has instructed some humans about extraterrestrials. In some cases the humans ask the visitors: where do you come from? They always point to the sky. And they always promise that in the far future they will return.”

Von Däniken has persisted in his belief in the teeth, it should be said, of very considerable opposition. A whole library of anti-Däniken rebuttal literature exists – with archaeologist and ancient historians pointing out errors of fact and interpretation in his work. The astrophysicist Carl Sagan said: “The kindest thing I can say about von Däniken is that he ignores the science of archeology. Every time he 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.” (His detractors will also tend to point to von Däniken’s prosecutions for fraud in the 1960s. For what it’s worth, he says he was fitted up by a malicious prosecutor, and maintains: “I have absolutely no criminal record.”)

Von Däniken surprises me by volunteering that despite having sold more than 60 million books, run a theme park and presented countless TV programmes, he has “never become a rich man”. What? Even if, as he says, he was naïve about his early publishing contracts, it’d be hard to get royalties on 60 million copies of 44 books without ending up with a bit tucked away. “The money goes in and the money goes out,” he says. “And not for luxury. I never had a Ferrari, or a big house. I’m living in a wood house in the Swiss Alps, together with my wife. Our marriage is more than 60 years [long]. I have never become a rich man,” he repeats, though he concedes: “I have enough money to be an old man and have no financial problems.”

I wonder why, if the notion of these aliens was to guide human development, he thinks they went away for several thousand years. “Well, ethnologists today go to the upper Amazon River, and then they go back home,” he says. “And the distances between the stars are very, very large – you can’t go from one solar system to the other just within 10 years.”

“So these aliens wanted to go home to sort of have a cup of tea,” I say, “and it’s just taken them a very long time to come back.” “Yes,” he says. “I think it’s probably because of the distances. But these are just ideas. I have no proof.” Does he think that proof will ever emerge? He says the knock-down blow would be the discovery of a provably alien artefact – though as he approaches his 87th birthday, he admits that he doesn’t have a strong hope of it happening in his lifetime.

“Oh, yes. Someone – not Erich, someone – will find somewhere an object that is not terrestrial. Then we have the proof.” He believes they’re here – and even that we know where they are – but says they’re so far inaccessible. One of the errors in the first book was his identifying an iron pillar in a temple in Delhi as an “extraterrestrial alloy” because “the temple guides told me that the pillar didn’t rust”; as a cross note in the introduction to a later edition admits, “in the meantime, that piece of junk was rusting away”.

The iron pillar wasn’t his only horse in the race, though. “Go into the Bible,” he says. “There is an object called the Ark of the Covenant. What is the Ark of the Covenant? An extraterrestrial object. We know where the Ark of the Covenant is, today: in the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Mary in the Ethiopian city of Aksum, but you cannot go there, because it is closed.”

Another candidate is likewise just beyond our reach: von Däniken says that the first Japanese Emperor received a gift from his “heavenly father” of a mirror that allowed him to see what was going on on all the Pacific Islands at once – “something like a satellite picture”. “In his sarcophagus is this gift, this mirror. But the sarcophagus is completely closed. If we could open this sarcophagus and see the mirror, it would probably be an extraterrestrial object.”

There’s another, still fonder, hope he nurses. “Or – that’s a dream – extraterrestrials that might be observing us today, some of the extraterrestrials show up in public. They go on British television and they say, yes, we are not from this planet, and they can prove it somehow – then the case is clear.”

“And then,” I suggest happily, “they will say: “Von Däniken was right!’”

He laughs. “It would be great, of course. But I’m not the sort of man – you know, I have not the character – to say: ‘Hey, now, you see – I was right, and you are all idiots.’”

Eternals is on Disney+ from Wednesday 12 January


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