Erich von Däniken
| The woo is out there|
|Aliens did it...|
|...and ran away|
| Fiction over fact|
|How it didn't happen|
Erich von Däniken (1935–) is the Swiss author of a number of books proposing that extraterrestrials visited Earth in the past and influenced human history.
The majority of von Däniken's claims are either not even wrong or fail Carl Sagan's extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence test.
Using his experience as the manager of a hotel, von Däniken wrote Chariots of the Gods? in 1968, for which he later won the 1991 Ig Nobel Prize for Literature. 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.
While Erich von Däniken was the go-to Ancient Astronaut guy for years, he merely popularized the idea. Peter Kolosimo's works like Timeless Earth were international best sellers, and preceded him by several years. There are several other notable predecessors, including the stories of H.P. Lovecraft in which narrators would often find the sculptures of evil ancient aliens in remote locations. Von Däniken's main strength has been in self-promotion and marketing, and his books are somewhat more entertaining than some of his rivals.
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:
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 ...", 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 wildly 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.
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.[note 1]
- 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.
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.
At da movies
You can't publish heaps of bullshit like this without moviemakers and TV execs taking notice. In 1970 a West German "documentary" based on Chariots was released. During the 1970s, 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.[note 2]
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[note 3] but was still "in development" as of 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")
- Stargate (1994) - a science fiction film by Roland Emmerich based on von Däniken's crazy theories, which spawned several TV series, novels, comic books, video games, and movies, and inspired the short "documentary" Is There a Stargate? (2003), featuring von Däniken and Giorgio Tsoukalos
- 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.
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) from 1972 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.) Another from the same year was Crash Go The Chariots by Clifford Wilson.
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.
Von Däniken's claims were partly inspired by Robert Charroux. Charroux's publisher threatened a lawsuit for copyright violation due to Von Däniken plagiarizing him. As a result, Von Däniken added citations of Charroux in later editions. Charroux was lucky, since there are several other probable sources for Von Däniken's work who never get attributions in his work.
Von Däniken has written a lot. A sample:
- Erinnerungen an die Zukunft, 1968, ISBN 3-404-60274-9 (Memories of the Future)
- Zurück zu den Sternen, 1969, Econ, 1986, ISBN 3-430-11986-3 (Back to the Stars)
- Return to the Stars, ISBN 0552090832
- Published also as Gods from Outer Space
- Aussaat und Kosmos, 1972, ISBN 3-426-03384-4 (Sowing and the Universe, yeah, the German title is pretty silly, too.)
- The Gold of the Gods, 1973, ISBN 0399112081
- Meine Welt in Bildern, 1973, ISBN 3-426-03404-2 (My World in Pictures)
- In Search of Ancient Gods: My Pictorial Evidence for the Impossible, 1974, ISBN 0285621343
- Erscheinungen, 1974, ISBN 3-453-04434-7 (Apparitions)
- Miracles of the Gods, 1975, ISBN 0285621742
- Besucher aus dem Kosmos, 1975 (collection), ISBN 3430119839 (Visitors from Outer Space)
- Beweise, 1977, ISBN 3-453-00907-X (Proofs/Evidence)
- According to the Evidence, 1977, ISBN 0285633155
- Im Kreuzverhör, 1978, ISBN 3-453-01055-8 (In Cross-examination)
- Prophet der Vergangenheit, 1979, ISBN 3-453-05230-7 (Prophet of the Past)
- Signs of the gods?, 1980, ISBN 0399125590
- Reise nach Kiribati, 1981, ISBN 3-430-11996-0 (Voyage to Kiribati)
- Pathways to the Gods, 1982, ISBN 0399127518
- Strategie der Götter, 1982, ISBN 3-430-11979-0 (Strategy of the Gods)
- The Gods and Their Grand Design, c1984, ISBN 0399129618
- Der Tag an dem die Götter kamen, 1984, ISBN 3-442-08478-4 (The Day the Gods came, he-he-he...)
- Habe ich mich geirrt?, 1985, ISBN 3-570-03059-8 (Was I Wrong? - just kidding, of course not.)
- Wir alle sind Kinder der Götter, 1987, C. Bertelsmann, ISBN 3-570-03060-1 (We are All Children of the Gods)
- Die Augen der Sphinx, 1989, C. Bertelsmann, ISBN 3-570-04390-8 (The Eyes of the Sphynx)
- Die Steinzeit war ganz anders, 1991, ISBN 3-570-03618-9 (The Stone Age Wasn't that Way at All)
- Erinnerungen an die Zukunft, 1992, (new edition with a new foreword)
- Der Götter-Schock, 1992, ISBN 3-570-04500-5 (The Gods Shock, not to be confused with this guy.)
- Raumfahrt im Altertum, 1993, ISBN 3-570-12023-6 (Ancient Space Travel)
- Auf den Spuren der Allmächtigen, 1993, C. Bertelsmann, ISBN 3-570-01726-5 (Investigating the Almighty)
- Botschaften und Zeichen aus dem Universum, 1994, C. Bertelsmann, ISBN 3-442-12688-6 (Messages and Signs from the Universe)
- Zeichen für die Ewigkeit – Die Botschaft von Nazca, 1997, ISBN 3-570-01730-3 (Signs for Eternity: The Message of Nazca)
- Arrival of the Gods : Revealing the Alien Landing Sites of Nazca, 2000, ISBN 978-1-86204-748-8
- Im Namen von Zeus, 1999, ISBN 3-570-00029-X (In the Name of Zeus)
- Odyssey of the Gods: The Alien History of Ancient Greece, 2000, ISBN 978-1-86204-749-5
- Die Götter waren Astronauten, 2001, ISBN 3-570-00031-1
- Götterdämmerung – Die Rückkehr der Außerirdischen. 2012 und darüber hinaus, 2009, ISBN 3-942016-04-4 (Twilight of the Gods - Return of the Extraterrestrials)
- Twilight of the Gods : The Mayan Calendar and the Return of the Extraterrestrials, 2010, ISBN 978-1-60163-132-9
- Ancient astronauts
- Face on Mars
- Peter Kolosimo, a kind of John the Baptist figure to von Däniken.
- Piri Reis map
- Zecharia Sitchin
- Official website
- The Hall of Maat has a lot of good stuff debunking nutty ideas about the ancient world, including some of those espoused by von Däniken.
- Skeptic Report: The prophet of the space-gods
- Von Däniken’s Chariots: A Primer in the Art of Cooked Science by John T. Omohundro, Skeptical Inquirer Winter 1976.
- PBS Nova page
- 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
- No kidding: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065702/awards
- That's right, 2012! (But would it see release before the Mayan calendar ends?)