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Bronze-level articleErich von Däniken

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The woo is out there

UFOlogy

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Aliens did it...
... and ran away
Erich von Däniken, October 2009. You might note a certain resemblance to Randy Quaid. Coincidence? Well... yeah.

Erich von Däniken (born 1935) is the Swiss author of a number of books proposing that extraterrestrials visited Earth in the past and influenced human history. His works made him the best-known proponent of the idea for a few decades, until Giorgio Tsoukalos gained that position due to his Ancient Aliens TV show (and his hair). The majority of von Däniken's claims are either not even wrong or fail Carl Sagan's extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence test.

Contents

[edit] Biography

Using his experience as the manager of a hotel, von Däniken wrote Chariots of the Gods? in 1968,[1] for which he later won the 1991 Ig Nobel Prize for Literature.[2] He has gone on to write many more novels, providing hours of entertainment for rationalists everywhere. He has also opened a wildly unsuccessful theme park based on his writing which is divided into several areas, each focusing on a different pet theory of his; the park gets few visitors and is constantly in dire financial straits, having been closed at least twice since its construction.

[edit] Books

Von Däniken is a fairly prolific writer, and has written a large number of books, most of them simply rehashing the same claims over and over and over again. The vast majority of his works include the phrase 'Of The Gods' somewhere in the title. A few selected works include:

[edit] Chariots of the Gods?

In his first book, Chariots of the Gods?, he claims, among other things, that aliens visited our planet thousands of years ago, lent a hand in the construction of monuments all over the world, meddled with human evolution and gave rise to religious myths. He uses as "proof":

  • A map that supposedly depicts the land beneath the ice of Antarctica
  • Computer astronomy from Egyptian and Incan ruins
  • A spaceport in the Andes
  • Ancient navigation charts for space.
  • Basically every ancient drawing of a vaguely humanoid figure found to date, which he claims all depict "astronauts" despite effectively no evidence to support this claim.

The book is shot through with argument from incredulity, not-very-well-disguised racism (von Däniken seems to believe that only modern white people are capable of innovation, imagination, or great feats of engineering), and lots of random made-up bullshit.

His explanation for the origin of ancient monuments such as the Egyptian pyramids or the Nazca lines fails Occam's Razor quite spectacularly, and while such feats are indeed impressive for bronze age people, one would expect a highly advanced civilization capable of interstellar travel to come up with something a little better. Moreover, if these aliens were indeed benevolent and tried to help humans (as von Däniken claims), one wonders how they got the idea that what humanity needed most were huge piles of intricately arranged rocks instead of stuff like modern medicine and energy sources. After littering the landscape with strange buildings and messing with the humans' minds, the aliens apparently vanished, leaving no trace of their technology.

It also contains a remarkable chapter, "When Our Spaceship Landed on Earth ...",[3] structured as a thought experiment — albeit the most deranged and illogical thought experiment ever published in a mainstream work. Posing the question of what we would do if we travelled to a primitive alien world — a feat he assumes to be possible within his lifetime — he "reasonably" assumes that our astronauts would promptly begin handing out free trinkets and advice (despite our negative experience of contact between advanced and primitive people on our own world), restructure the "savage" society to approximate civilisation in our own Bronze Age (despite our modern reservations about absolute monarchy and theocracy), "fertilise" the local females in order to create a "new race" (despite biology) and finally set off a nuclear bomb in the area and get the locals to mine the crater for "fissionable matter" to fuel our spaceship, in the knowledge that the radiation will surely kill them. This apparently being self-evident, he then depicts ancient mythology in similar terms and declares quod erat demonstrandum. Now, while this doesn't mean that alien visitors wouldn't act in this thoughtless and cruel fashion towards our ancestors, it is highly unlikely that humans would behave in this way - which blows a hole in an argument founded on this very thought experiment.

[edit] The Eyes of the Sphinx

A.k.a. "Von Däniken visits Egypt", as it is mostly a travelogue interspersed with infodumps and other tangents. It is separated into four chapters:

  • The first one concerns the millions of mummified animals stocked into ancient tunnels and the abundant images of hybrid animals (e.g. sphinxes). Von Däniken floats the hypothesis that these are evidence of ancient aliens practising genetic engineering.
  • The second is devoted to von Däniken's search for a lavish "labyrinth" described by Herodotus. When he reaches the ruin identified as the labyrinth, he finds it underwhelming.[4]
  • The pyramids (of Giza and elsewhere) are the next stop. Lots of pyramid woo, including claims about numerical ratios, "nobody knows how they were built", "the block were cast out of synthetic stone", the Baghdad battery, the Dendera lamp and the Pyramid effect. Zecharia Sitchin gets a shout-out.
  • Contrary to the title, not much space is devoted to the Sphinx of Giza. Von Däniken is entertaining the idea that the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza have been built before recorded history - "before the Flood". Ouch!

Most of the "outlandish" stuff in the book is presented as "just asking questions", "hypotheses", "look how silly the mainstream explanations are", "the mainstream has not explained cannot explain this", etc.

[edit] Fraud

In yet another stunning example of the establishment conspiring against innovative intellectuals, von Däniken was convicted for embezzlement and tax evasion shortly after the publication of Chariots. He also had to admit that he had forged some of his "ancient" artifacts allegedly depicting alien visitors.[5]

[edit] At da movies

You can't publish heaps of bullshit like these without moviemakers and TV execs taking notice. In 1970, a West German "documentary" based on the Chariots was released. During the '70s, dubbed versions were released to other countries. Rod Serling (who else?) narrated the North American release. This received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature in 1971.[6]

Sadly, this Oscar nod served to embolden moviemakers around the world into revisiting von Däniken's fantasy world. Followups to Chariots include:

  • Chariots of the Gods: The Mysteries Continue - an hour-long 1996 US TV special.
  • A remake using new technology -- most likely in 3-D -- was originally scheduled for release in 2012[7] but is still "in development" in mid-2014.

Other movies/TV shows/straight-to-videos based on von Däniken's tomes include:

  • William Shatner's Mysteries of the Gods (1987) - based on von Däniken's book Botschaft der Götter ("Message of the Gods")
  • UFO Experience - In Search of Ancient Astronauts (1998)
  • Secrets of the Millennium - In Quest of: Ancient Aliens (1999)
  • Secrets of the Millennium - Aliens And Man: Where Do We Come From (1999)
  • Incredible Mysteries of our Planet (2001) - a video box set focusing on Chariots, Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle.

[edit] Refutations

The trouble with 'Chariots' is that it's so downright belly-achingly laughter-inducing that anyone trying to refute it soon becomes overcome with hysteria, with the result that the Dänikenites turn away with the smug realization that their cause is true. In addition, most readers agree with von Däniken's own claim that his work "contradicts ... modern science".

To read a page-by-page refutation of Chariots of the Gods?, go out and buy The Space Gods Revealed by Ronald Story, 1976. Some Trust In Chariots: Sixteen Views of Erich von Däniken's 'Chariots of the Gods' (ed. Barry Thiering and Edward Castle) sold well in Australia too. (The cover tagline was "The bombshell book that goes far beyond Chariots of the Gods to reveal the startling, irrefutable truth about ancient marvels!" We're sure the woo fans were very happy.)

The book Erinnerungen an die Wirklichkeit ('Memories of Reality') by the German writer Gerhard Gadow is a very good investigation of von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods. It is translated into many languages.

There are plenty of websites out there that debunk many of von Däniken's other claims. Jason Colavito, writing in Skeptic Magazine, traces the "ancient astronauts" meme back to H.P. Lovecraft.[8]

[edit] Bibliography

Von Däniken has written a lot. A sample:

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Biography
  2. Winners of the Ig® Nobel Prize
  3. Pp.21-27 of the 1971 Corgi edition.
  4. He's not the only one. "...The notorious Erich von Däniken believes that the Labyrinth is yet to be discovered and is "waiting for a modern-day Heinrich Schliemann." On this, for once, he may be right...", The Ancient Egyptian Labyrinth, Larry Orcutt's Catchpenny Mysteries of Ancient Egypt Explained
  5. Ancient astronauts and Erich von Däniken, The Skeptic's Dictionary
  6. No kidding: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065702/awards
  7. That's right, 2012! (But will it be released before the Mayan calendar ends?)
  8. http://jcolavito.tripod.com/lostcivilizations/id26.html
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