Chariots of the Gods?
Well, my series on crackpot thinking has reached four posts now. And we conclude with another favourite of my youthful years. Chariots of the Gods. This was a book published in 1968 by one Erich von Däniken. It made a fairly big splash at the time, and I still remember watching the TV specials it inspired. The basic premise of the book was that alien visitors in ancient times had visited Earth, both giving us advanced technology and explaining various historical myths and legends. Ezekiel’s revelation in the bible for example is claimed to be a description of a landing spacecraft. Our ancestors of course thought these alien visitors were Gods, hence the title of the book.
The book listed many other things besides as Ezekiel to support Von Däniken’s theory. The pyramids. Easter Island. Inca gold figures said to represent aircraft. The Nazca lines, said to be an ancient astronaut “airfield.” A Mayan astronaut in a rocket, pictured above. Yes, in fact it can safely be said that Von Däniken created a whole new genre with this groundbreaking book, since a whole cornucopia of similar nonsense has followed. Or as Tim Callahan so aptly put it, a new genre has been created:
“It is a genre in which idiosyncratic interpretation of myth, bad history, and questionable science have been melded to create a new paradigm, one that has the potential to challenge reason and science to the same degree as Bible-based creationism.”
Yerp. Idiosyncratic interpretation of myth, bad history, and questionable science. That pretty much covers what I call crackpot thinking. Von Däniken went on to write all sorts of sequels to Chariots of the Gods but alas I was sixteen and thus older and wiser by the time I came across them. They were pretty ambitious in their scope, but I found them pretty hard to swallow.
I suppose I could talk about the various proofs that Von Däniken offers, and I may blog upon them sometime. The Nazca Lines, the Pyramids, etc. However, I don’t have space for that and it’s not really germane to the topic on hand. Suffice it to say that Von Däniken scoured Earth’s history for anything that supported his contention, and all sorts of stuff that experts hardly find puzzling at all was shoehorned into the theory. I suspect that this is one of the big attractions of theories like this, people who believe in them can take great pride that the experts are wrong and that Von Däniken and his believers are keepers of the true faith so to speak.
Which leads to the speculation that this sort of theory has at least some psychological/sociological components in common with religions and cults. Including furious defence of the “faith.” In fact if one ever wants to see how fervent these sorts of people can be, just join a chat room or discussion group they run…and politely suggest there might be some prosaic explanation to some aspect of their theory. The reaction would be about the same if one went to an Evangelical seminary and suggested that Jesus might have been a normal human being just like the rest of us. It likely won’t be very polite and likely your invitation will be revoked. And they definitely will not want to discuss your prosaic explanation.
All that aside, the main point I want to make about Von Däniken’s theory is that in essence it’s the theory of Atlantis repackaged for modern sensibilities. And that in essence it’s a truly racist, xenophobic, imperialistic, and Eurocentric theory. Yes, people who believe in Von Däniken are basically believing that white people are the keepers of civilization and the only “true” human beings, without having to explicitly acknowledge that, even to themselves. I know, it sounds like a stretch. Bear with me. Over the past millennium Europe conquered the world, driven by a belief in the inherent superiority of Christian European (read: white) culture and civilization. The Greeks and Romans had invented civilization, the Christians had perfected it, and it was European’s mission to spread the benefits of same to the primitive brown people the world over. Of course stealing their resources when not actually enslaving them was a big part of the picture, but, you see, it was for their own good!
Well, by the nineteenth century or so archaeological evidence had pretty much dethroned the idea that the Greeks and Romans invented civilization, they were in fact Johnny-come-latelys. The world over, red, brown, and yellow people had thriving cities and civilizations while the Romans and Greeks were living in hide covered huts. This was unacceptable, and it was much easier to believe that these people had all gotten the original knowledge needed to create civilization from the original white civilization: Atlantis. And of course by the mid twentieth century, the Atlantis theory was pretty much dead, so a new theory substituting aliens for Atlanteans was born and thrived.
Yes, insecure white people can rest assured that all those brown people aren’t truly their equals, since they had civilization given to them by ancient astronauts. Granted I am simplifying a very complex situation here, but the point I am trying to get to is that I think people chose a belief system that best supports/masks their flaws and insecurities. If one asks themselves why people might believe in alternate theories like Von Däniken’s, Velikovski, and the rest…there is a lot going on.
Which is why I have tried to be at least somewhat diplomatic in discussing various crackpot theories the past few posts. For good or for ill, these sorts of theories and the people who believe in them are far more mainstream in their thinking than might be supposed superficially. And studying these theories and the people who believe in them can indeed lead to insight and discussion about the very nature of what it means to be human. Not to mention insight into the psychology driving certain foreign military adventures going on even now, I’ll leave the gentle reader to connect those dots as they may.
(The above image of the Mayan ruler Pacal is clearly public domain under US copyright law, since the artist has been dead for centuries. Credit: Unknown. Von Däniken claims this image shows an astronaut in a rocket. Archaeologists find nothing strange in this image, it’s a standard depiction of a Mayan ruler and various symbols in a manner consistent with other Mayan depictions. Contending this image is proof of ancient astronauts makes about as much sense as saying a depiction of superman is proof that humans can fly.)