»Ancient Astronaut« Narrations
A Popular Discourse on Our Religious Past (1)
In their typical explanatory and unveiling gesture, the narrations about Ancient Astronauts have become a popular myth about our religious past. Nowadays, these narrations are often contained in a specific genre of literature on the alternative bookshelves, and a gigantic theme park in Interlaken (“Mystery Park”) is staging some of its basic ideas. This Ancient Astronaut discourse owes much to Swiss-born Erich von Däniken, to be sure, but it can be traced back to the earlier impact of Charles Fort and his iconoclastic books about “damned data” – anomalistic sightings and findings which an ignorant science deliberately seemed to “exclude”. Since then, the “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in Ancient Times” (Paleo-SETI or PSETI) has become a popular “research” subject, leading not only to various publications in many languages of the world, but also to lay-research organizations and conventions. – The paper tries to identify the major themes, motivations and argumentative strategies in the Ancient Astronauts discourse, as well as its typical oscillation between an ‘alternative science’ and manifest esotericism. With its ‘neo-mythic’ activity (ufological Euhemerism, re-enchantment of heaven, foundation myth for modernity, etc.), it resembles a secular and ‘ufological’ parallel to creationism, displaying a strong belief in the ‘hidden’ truth of the religious traditions. This ‘broken’ myth with its technological explanations of religion has influenced many New Age or ‘esoteric’ strands – especially UFO-religions like the “Raëlian Religion”. The Ancient Astronaut narrations knit together our specific late-modern mode of being-in-the-world with a lay people’s attempt at a new search for the fundamental truth of the myth: The protagonists still “want to believe”, and they find it plausible that a pre-astronautic “truth is somewhere out there”: But in the end, the seemingly self-evident technological possibilities of our age are projected back into a remote past, on the surface of ancient texts and artifacts, – and the result is nothing but a shining mirror of us, and of our time.
Erzählungen über antike „Astronautengötter“ sind längst zu einem populären Mythos avanciert, der die Wahrheit über unsere religiöse Vergangenheit ‚aufdecken’ und „erklären“ soll. Hierzu findet man mittlerweile ein spezifisches Genre im alternativen Büchermarkt, und in Interlaken wirbt sogar ein großes Erlebniszentrum „Mystery Park“ für die Plausibilität der diesbezüglichen Grundideen und „Indizien“ Obwohl der prägende Einfluss des Schweizers Erich von Däniken nicht unterschätzen ist, lassen sich viele Elemente dieses Diskurses bis zu Charles Fort und seinen ikonoklastischen Büchern über die sog. „verdammten Daten“ zurückführen – anomalistische Befunde, die seiner Meinung nach von einer ignoranten Wissenschaft „exkludiert“ wurden. Mittlerweile wurde die „Suche nach Extraterrestrischer Intelligenz in der Vergangenheit“ (Paleo-SETI oder PSETI) ein populäres „Forschungs“-Thema, das nicht nur zu einer Vielzahl entsprechender Publikationen in vielen Sprachen der Welt führte, sondern auch zur Formierung von Laien-Forschungsgemeinschaften und entsprechenden Tagungen. – Der Beitrag beschäftigt sich mit den Hauptthemen, Motivationshintergründen und Argumentationsstrategien des Astronautengötter-Diskurses, aber auch mit der typischen Oszillation der „Prä-Astronautik“ zwischen einer ‚alternativen Wissenschaft’ und manifest esoterischer Religiosität. Mit seinem neo-mythischen Gestus (ufologischer Euhemerismus, Wiederverzauberung des Himmels, Begründungsmythos für die Moderne, usw.) erscheint dieser Diskurs auf weiten Strecken wie ein säkulares oder ‚ufologisches’ Pendant zum Kreationismus, was v.a. in dem starken Glauben an die ‚verborgene’ Wahrheit der religiösen Überlieferungen zum Ausdruck kommt. Dieser ‚gebrochene’ Mythos mit seinen technologischen Erklärungen von Religion hat zudem viele Traditionen des New Age und der Esoterik beeinflusst – v.a. UFO-Glaubensbewegungen wie die „Raelistische Religion“. Die präastronautischen Narrationen vereinen unsere spezifisch spätmoderne Weise des In-der-Welt-Seins mit der laienhaften Suche nach der eigentlichen Grundwahrheit des Mythos: Ihre Protagonisten „wollen glauben“, und sie halten es für plausibel, dass es eine präastronautische „Wahrheit irgendwo da draußen“ gibt. Aber letztlich werden die selbstverständlichen scheinenden technologischen Möglichkeiten unseres Zeitalters nur in eine weit entfernte Vergangenheit, auf die Oberfläche antiker Texte und Artefakte, zurückprojiziert – und am Ende entdeckt man auf diese Weise doch wieder nur einen leuchtenden Spiegel von uns selbst und unserer Gegenwart.
In 1994, Roland Emmerich’s well-made Science Fiction movie Stargate (not to be confused with the shallow follow-up TV-series) came up with a paradigmatic core-story: During excavations in Egypt a strange artifact, which appears like a grand circular door, is unearthed. Later, it is discovered by the story’s hero Egyptologist to be actually a “star gate” to another planet. So it becomes clear that the ancient Egypt gods were originally nothing but “Ancient Astronauts” (2) with access to a highly advanced technology. In a key scene on this other planet, the hero scientist, standing among a scared group of the planet’s human inhabitants, finally takes away the intimidating mythic disguise from a defeated “alien God” and reveals the original human face behind the ‘helmet’ – saying: “Have a look at your ‘Gods’”.
This explanatory and unveiling gesture, interpreting and displaying the so-called mythic ‘Gods’ as mere humans, or – in most cases, at least – as humanoid beings, is the core motif of a specific discourse which is heavily linked with the name of Swiss-born Erich von Däniken (born 1935). (3) Since 1968, when his first book Erinnerungen an die Zukunft (English version: Chariots of the Gods) was published and immediately turned into a best-seller, von Däniken has become an internationally successful author with more than 60 Mio books published in all major languages world-wide. In the same year, by the way, Stanley Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey – also enriched with Ancient Astronaut portents (4) – came into the cinemas.
Von Däniken was not – and did not stay – alone: A whole troop of Ancient Astronaut companions and epigenous writers arose. Some of them also even managed to make a living from the income of their Ancient Astronaut books. Looking on its main players and protagonists, this discourse and genre is, though not solely, but to a large extent, a German discourse, counting among its authors people like Walter-Jörg Langbein, Johannes Fiebag, Erich Dopatka, Peter Krassa and Lars A. Fischinger (and many others). In order to promote and discuss the Ancient Astronaut ideas, a so-called “Ancient Astronaut Society (AAS)” was formally established in 1973 – nowadays relabeled “Archaeology, Astronautics and SETI (5) Research Association (AAS RA)”. On their website (6) one can browse through a “meeting point” section on active membership: interestingly, we find (April 2006) over 467 members from Germany, 88 from Switzerland and 48 from Austria – adding up to a total of 603 German speaking members (!) compared to 76 from all other European countries (internationally, there are some 62 US-American plus 13 Canadian members, numbers from the rest of the world are below significance). (7)Despite its international success, the Ancient Astronaut discourse therefore still appears strongly linked to German actors.
Examples of some AAS-Journal
The AAS (RA) explicitly wants to serve as a platform for international exchange on Ancient Astronaut questions: “The AAS RA is determined to prove, using scientific research methods, but in ‘layman’s terms’, as to whether or not extraterrestrials have visited Earth in the remote past.” (8) – As in ‘real’ academic organizations, research journals were therefore developed and published: originally under the label Ancient Skies, then Legendary Times or, in the German equivalent, Sagenhafte Zeiten. Analogously, the creation of AAS-research awards for distinguished contributions to the field imitates the established practice of scientific networks. Finally, a gigantic prestige project surfaced near Interlaken in the year 2003: the 86 Mio SFr theme park about “World Mysteries”, now called “Mystery Park”, where all the ‘classic’ themes and topics of the Ancient Astronaut discourse are displayed and intensely ‘staged’ with advanced technological means and media. The same is true, by the way, for 70 year old Erich von Däniken himself, who still travels a lot giving public Ancient Astronaut lectures all over Europe, where he performs as a great professional narrator and entertainer accompanied by impressive computer-based animations, slides and films. (9)
When the first preparations for this theme park, this gigantic ‘brainchild’ of Erich von Däniken, started to make it into the press around the turn of the century, many people (including myself) were still doubtful whether he would really be able to convince all relevant Swiss authorities – or, even more importantly, enough well-to-do sponsors who would actually take the risk to fund this expensive project (with costs increasing from an amount originally estimated at around 50 Mio to 86 Mio SFr). (10) – But nowadays, von Däniken’s “dream” (11) has indeed come true: the Mystery Park is well received and seems to have made it, also due to very professional public relations and commercials, and despite the relatively high entrance fees. The mere fact that von Däniken’s endeavor is now presenting human history from a quite different angle, but staging it in a very convincing and highly entertaining ‘mediatized’ form, presents a real challenge to all traditional academic archeology, anthropology, history and religious studies, as well as to its popular communication in conventional museum fashion. – But where did this particular Ancient Astronaut discourse come from? Where did it all begin?
1. Charles Hoy Fort – the ‘invention’ of the discourse and its genre
It was the US-American journalist and innovative writer Charles Hoy Fort (1874–1932), who laid down the most influential modern ‘foundation stone’ for the idea of space alien interventions on Earth. His classic Book of the Damned appeared in 1919, followed up by three analogous volumes in the years until 1932. (12) In his four books, Fort concentrated on all kinds of strange sightings: empirical data, which he collected from magazines, books, journals, newspapers (etc.), and which had been ‘ignored’ by modern science. Fort wanted to display, as he stated in the famous opening lines of his book: “A procession of the damned. By the damned, I mean the excluded. We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.” (13)
Fort therefore appears as a critical iconoclast, humorously destroying the discourse-surface of an all-too nice and self-sufficient science, which (as he put it) does not deserve the name “science” since it is ideologically ‘framed’ by dogmatic and traditional perspectives, “excluding” everything, which does not fit into a predetermined picture of the world. Thus, “theologians and scientists”, or traditional religion and science (Fort speaks of “Dogmatic Science” in capitals in his opening paragraph) are lined up side-by-side in their ignorance and narrow-mindedness towards ‘different’ or ‘anomalistic’ facts. Because of the pre-judgmental and “exclusionist” attitude of academic scholarship, all the “positive assurances of the sciences” should be seen critically as nothing but “islands of seeming stability in a cosmic jelly”, as one of his famous quips from New Lands goes. (14)
Fort’s books inspired many writers in the Science Fiction and fantasy genres – most prominently H.P. Lovecraft. One of Fort’s basic conclusions is that obviously “we’re property” – “property” of some alien extraterrestrial force (whatever it might be), a force which colonized earth a long time ago, and therefore we still do find anomalistic data, remnants of their interventions today:
Several times in his books, Fort expresses the idea that a hidden knowledge about the existence of such forces seems to be handed down only via “esoteric ones” (who once had been in actual “communication”) and some secret “societies” or esoteric fraternities – a topic which later was to become a strong Lovecraft motif (16), and which could be traced back to some core elements of the theosophic “Secret Science” narrations in Helena P. Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine.
Charles Fort’s iconoclasm consists in a thrust against a stubborn exclusionist science, which only allows those data that ‘fit’ the preconceived ideas into the ruling discourse. This unveiling narrative gesture which posits the author and his anomalistic findings as the spearhead of ‘true science’, plays a constitutive role for the Ancient Astronaut narrations and similar genres in the ‘fantastic documentary’ area (cf. Robert Charroux, David H. Childress, Zecharia Sitchin and many others). Therefore, one cannot read von Däniken without seeing Forts narrative styles popping out of the pages everywhere. (17) Von Däniken and other Ancient Astronaut authors cultivate the same sidekicks against established scientific discourses: A new, alternative and truly comprehensive science is being sought, a science which does allow unconventional ideas, ‘unthinkable’ global correlations between seemingly unrelated data – leaving behind the old paths of compartmentalized research. – Interestingly, some ‘material’ facets of the modern (post-World War II) “contactee” version of UFO faith are also prefigured in Fort, when he writes about the sightings of giant “cigar-shaped” space vessels, which appeared like a “torpedo” or “super-Zeppelin” – or about abductions, teleportation and animal mutilations. (18)
To be sure, Erich von Däniken’ s ideas were not at all new, but it was him who took up these ideas of an Ancient Astronaut past in the history of humankind and made it the core focus in his books from 1968 until now. But French-born Robert Charroux, for example, who published his own books Betrayed Mysteries (French original 1963) and Fantastic Past (1965) only a few years before von Däniken’s best-seller, and apparently not without influence upon the latter, has come up with quite similar theories about extraterrestrial visitors on earth, atomic wars in ancient Vedic India or biblical Ezekiel reporting ancient space ship sightings (etc.). He also interprets mankind’s prehistory in the style of Ancient Astronaut narrations. Ancient high cultures, for example, must have had some access to a highly advanced E.T. technology – and, according to Charroux’ summary in Fantastic Past, there must have been a conspiracy, a secret society of the initiated with a mission – a mission to hold back this fantastic adventure of their ancestors: a conspiracy, 6.000 years old, probably with leading esoteric figures in all major religions.
In 1923, Charles Fort already formulated some kind of a promise in his second book New Lands:
This exactly has become the programmatic effort – almost in a direct ‘continuation’ of Fort’s endeavor and ‘legacy‘ – of the modern Ancient Astronaut discourse and genre, according to the self-understanding of its protagonists: a new contribution, which unfortunately is still belittled and laughed at by notorious ‘exclusionist doubters’ in arrogant science – the collaborative collection and publication of all those ‘data’, including those from religious traditions, which contain at least impressive hints and evidences (as long as a definite “proof” still has to come) towards an Ancient Astronaut intervention on this Earth’s past. In their opinion, it was always the ‘outsiders’ or ‘lay researchers’, those with queer ideas, who brought progress, fresh thinking and new revelation into the scientific discourse – like famous lay researcher Heinrich Schliemann, who indeed took the ancient myths about Troy for real, and finally ended up with impressive archaeological findings.
2. “Paleo-SETI” – Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in Ancient Times
Such a link to lay researcher Schliemann is decisive, and it can be encountered in many Ancient Astronaut publications or sample contributions to web-based discussion lists. Already back in 1965, Robert Charroux wrote, for example:
Interestingly, this German edition of Charroux’ Phantastische Vergangenheit (‘Fantastic Past’) appeared in 1966, and one year later, Erich von Däniken came up with an almost completely identical statement, which he boldly proclaimed at the end of his paper to the convention of UFO-researchers in Mainz:
Similar to Heinrich Schliemann, both Robert Charroux and Erich von Däniken started with a strong ‘faith’ into the truth of the ancient myths – although in a specific Ancient Astronaut sense. The basic idea of Ancient Astronauts can therefore be seen in full congruence with the so-called “euhemeristic” (21) theory of religion: Ancient gods have never been supernatural, numinous beings, but originally, they were nothing but important, highly esteemed humans (kings, rulers etc.) who gradually became ‘deified’ in the collective memory and, finally, worshipped as “Gods” by people of later times (apotheosis). The history of this gradual development then became forgotten. The Ancient Astronaut discourse, therefore, can be labeled a “’ufological’ Euhemerism” (or “’pre-astronautic’ Euhemerism”), as becomes evident in the last sentences of von Däniken’s paper quoted above: Humans everywhere in the world have recollected and systematized their collective memories to some strange humanoid interventions on earth, interventions of some alien ancient astronauts who gradually became deified, revered as true gods, and, thus, entered the religious and mythic heritage of our species. Typologically, all our earthly religions, myths and rituals seem to operate in a “Cargo Cult”-like fashion: they imitate and restage memories of ancient contacts with technologically superior alien visitors from space – a process which takes place in various mythic, ritual and architectural forms.
As a result, the main thrust of the Ancient Astronaut endeavor is an ‘archaeological’ one: to ‘dig’ for traces, remnants and hints in all layers of human culture, which can, could or should be interpreted in the light of the Ancient Astronaut theory – all in all, a true “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in Ancient Times”. In direct allusion to established scientific, so-called “SETI”-projects (“Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”) – with giant radio-telescopes, for example – the name “Paleo-SETI” has been adopted as an ‘emic’ term and self-description for the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis. “Paleo-SETI” (in German: “Paläo-SETI”) – or sometimes simply “PSETI”, in short – is used to emphasize the ‘scientific’ intention of the endeavor, whereas the German term “Prä-Astronautik” (‘pre-astronautics’) could be seen as the mere ‘popular’ side of it. Many protagonists of the discourse, therefore, tend to prefer the name “Paleo-SETI”, which was introduced in 1989 by Vladimir Avinsky and then propagated by Johannes Fiebag, against the older names “Prä-Astronautik” or “Ancient Astronauts”, especially when they claim seriousness and ‘academic’ standards for their ‘research’. This shift can also be detected in the relabeling of the “Ancient Astronaut Society (AAS)” already introduced above, where the very name “Ancient Astronaut” was removed in favor of the more ‘sober’ expression “Archaeology, Astronautics and SETI” and further flanked by the additional term “Research Association” (AAS RA). – What are the findings? What are the ‘data’ already uncovered and discussed in this endeavor? What are the ‘results’ after roughly 35 years of ‘research’?
3. The ‘material’ side of the Ancient Astronaut discourse
There is a characteristic set of typical issues in the PSETI discourse – or a row of paradigmatic topics, which reappear from the nineteen-sixties until today’s “Mystery Park”. Erich von Däniken’s first book, Erinnerungen an die Zukunft of 1968, has proved to be a basic corner stone here – despite early critiques (22). Probably his most famous example back then (and until today) was the Nazca plateau with its mysterious lines, symbols and figures, which he interpreted as an (allusion to an) “airport” or welcome area for alien space navigation: “To us, the Nazca plateau with its 60 kilometers in length clearly invokes the idea of an airport – when observed from the air, from above.“ (23) Accordingly, a virtual flight over the Nazca plateau has become one of the Mystery Park’s highlights today. Another prominent example is the burial plate of the ruler Pakal in Palenque’s Maya “Temple of Inscriptions”. Erich von Däniken interpreted the depiction on the surface of this plate as the image of an ancient space pilot: “… a human being is sitting there, the chest slightly bent over, in the position of a racing pilot; and every child today would identify his vehicle as a rocket.” (24) At that time, the Maya script had not yet been deciphered; but even nowadays, after the translation of all Maya glyphs and pictographic elements on this plate, and with the indisputable identification of the depicted person as emperor Pakal, von Däniken still continues to see a space pilot. (25) Palenque’s “Temple of Inscriptions” is also decisive, by the way, in so far as it is standing on a pyramid containing a human burial: Paleo-SETI discourses have always tried to link Mesoamerican pyramids with Egypt’s pyramids in the style of ‘diffusionist’ ideas. Or, did the ancient Egyptians, for example, have access to some sort of a superior “technology” in building the – architecturally highly demanding – pyramids? Were they able to use electricity, as some alleged depictions of “light bulbs” seem to indicate? (26) In a very ‘Fortean’ manner, Erich von Däniken is always very keen to make fun of the ‘exclusionist’ and diverging “scientific” explanations and interpretations of Egyptologists, archaeologists or researchers into ancient Mesoamerica.
Another prominent area, already present in von Däniken or Charroux, is the search for biblical witnesses to ancient space alien interventions, which are found foremost in Ezekiel’s visions of the “throne wagon” – which, of course, has to be identified as an alien flying machine. (27) But even more fundamental is the interpretation of the biblical account of creation, which is explained as a Space Alien experiment in genetic engineering; much emphasis lies on the Hebrew Plural ‘Gods’ in “Elohim”, which is interpreted as a hint towards a group of actors instead of one numinous being. During a documentary on television, Erich von Däniken himself summarized his PSETI interpretation of the biblical book Genesis in the following way:
Several post-Däniken PSETI authors have concentrated on such a ‘Bible-SETI’ perspectives (29), as they could be called. Analogous interpretations of other sacred scriptures are, for example, dealing with mysterious weaponry, high technology and space flights in ancient India, especially the Vedic “vimanas” (chariots of the Vedic gods). (30) Other topics concern amazing astronomic knowledge in, for example, the Maya calendar or in traditional religions as in the African Dogon mythology. With respect to other planets, an alleged “Face on Mars” (31) has been a topic of strong discussions with pro and contra arguments in the PSETI discourse, and concerning our own planet, ‘lost worlds’ like Atlantis and Mu – or the mysterious ‘Bermuda triangle’ – have also triggered several PSETI speculations.
As already described above, these “evidences” (in German, the term “Indizien” is widely used in the discourse) are nowadays staged with stunning technological efforts, to make them appear more realistic, convincing and plausible – both by von Däniken himself during his lecture tours, as well as in the new Mystery Park. Already back in 1995–97, a first interactive Computer-CD was released under the name Contact with the Universe, (32) containing an interactive encyclopedia of Paleo-SETI which today might already seem a little bit ‘antique’, but this computerized ‘narration’ nevertheless gives a good impression of all the major themes and topics in the discourse – from Palenque and Ezekiel up to the Face on Mars, all displayed and staged in short films.
Apart from this ‘mediatized’ form of narration, there have been already several editions of the Ancient Astronaut ideas in the mode of a comprehensive printed “encyclopedia”, (33) edited by epigenous writer Ulrich Dopatka from Switzerland. Erich von Däniken notes in the foreword to the 1997 edition, that the mere appearance of such an encyclopedia should be counted as a hint to the fact that initial stages of research are left behind, and that a consolidation of knowledge must have taken place: a critical collection and reevaluation of all clues and issues. (34) This is being said from the perspective of the PSETI insider and protagonist. But from the perspective of an academic researcher in religious studies (or an ethnographer, Egyptologist or archeologist) nothing really has changed in the style and genre of presentation, discussion and ‘research’: Ancient Astronaut speculations are still being projected onto the surface of religious myths and traditions, without ever rigorously attempting a critical hermeneutics, an attempt at falsification and especially a critical correlation with the original contextual data.
When questioning PSETI protagonists, “Do you know of any truly ‘scientific’ or self-critical attempts in reconstructing the discourse?”, I found only a few people who were really open and committed to that. The German Internet site www.mysteria3000.de is one of a few places where people can and do participate in both strongly assertive and critical modes. Another German-speaking web-based discussion-forum, however, had to be closed down after two years at the beginning of this new century because of too heavy insults between protagonists and critics (“Forum der Forschungsgesellschaft für Archäologie, Astronautik und SETI“). An earlier attempt to found a critical and deliberately scientifically oriented journal with the programmatic name Scientific Ancient Skies (parallel to the existing AAS-journal Ancient Skies) led only to two initial issues, and was then abandoned because it could not gather enough substantial contributions.
Despite the expressed intention to “use scientific means” (cf. the introduction on the AAS RA homepage), Ancient Astronaut discourses remain rather ‘traditional’, if not to say, normatively within the classic path à la Fort and von Däniken: in most cases, one classic ‘issue of evidence’ after another are reintroduced together, but mostly without a ‘thick description’ of relevant aspects and contextual details. In a revealing editorial to the German edition of Legendary Times, Dopatka stated that the PSETI endeavor cannot abandon even the seemingly deconstructed ideas and issues. (35) The reason given is that maybe one day these things may have to be revived at a later stage of ‘research’. – And this is exactly the impression every outside observer gets when reading through PSETI materials: it is rather a constant merry-go-round than really leading to new shores. If such an old issue like Pakal’s burial plate in Palenque – despite the final translation of Mayan glyphs (36) – is still being defended as the possible depiction of an astronaut in a spacecraft (37), then it really implies giving away what “research” and critical “progress” of knowledge denote and entail in the academic discourses of science. (38)
One only needs to look at a few random examples from the “Erich von Däniken-Encyclopedia” mentioned above in order to be able to grasp the shallowness of the argumentation, which is so typical for most Ancient Astronaut narrations – or “Paleo-SETI research”, as they would prefer to call it. A quotation from the short entry on “Stupa” might serve as an illustrative example:
To any person with at least some basic knowledge about Buddhist material culture, such an entry must sound entirely absurd: A Buddhist stupa, originally a shrine for Buddha-relics, provides no evidence whatsoever for any spacecraft, the small bell-shape is far from typical, and the proposed relation to Palenque is entirely fictitious and absolutely implausible. – If this were true, then what is the ‘power’ behind the discourse? What motivation gets the Ancient Astronaut narrations going? What is the fascination of the Paleo-SETI endeavor?
4. Motivations and fascinations ‘behind’ the discourse
Historically, as well as in terms of contemporary manifestations, the basic motifs of the Ancient Astronaut narrations or Paleo-SETI endeavors can be located in popular post-modern discourses concerned with so-called mysteries or, to frame it in ‘Fortean’ fashion, with “anomalistic” and “mysterious data”. There is a specific genre for these endeavors, which could be named the Unknown–Mysterious–Fantastic-genre, according to a very typical title of a German Charroux-book: Unbekannt – Geheimnnisvoll – Phantastisch. (40) This genre follows narrative lines from Fort to Charroux and von Däniken, and up to television documentaries like “Terra X”, ‘Magic Worlds’ (“Magische Welten”) and others. Further, there are many links from this “fantastic science” to playful fantasy literature and Science Fiction on one hand, and to manifest esotericism and religion on the other. As basic threads in motivation and fascination I would identify the following points
1) The fascination of the mysterious. – Mythological and architectural riddles, astronomic puzzles, astounding achievements in former times (etc.), they all can be a source of amazement and fascination in themselves. But maybe they also tell a hidden story, which might prove even more captivating: the story of some Ancient Astronauts and their veiled intervention on planet Earth. The revelation of this story could be ”the last great adventure of mankind”, as one member put it on the former AAS-forum on the Internet.
2) A lay-people’s revolt against the academic establishment. – Following the ubiquitous reverence to Schliemann, the Paleo-SETI endeavors are attempts to participate in academic discourses as emancipated lay individuals, who are frustrated by the compartmentalized specialization and the arrogant self-certainty of established academic discourses and who want to be heard in their new attempt at re-evaluating “damned” data.
3) Efforts into basic reductions of complexity. – These re-evaluations have to do with an attempt at bridging various disciplines, an effort to come up with new explanatory answers, which, after all, have to be understandable and simple: Since all ‘true’ science has to do with simplicity, there must be a few simple solutions to the mysterious riddles in our past.
4) Technological explanation and Euhemeristic disenchantment of religion. – In continuity with the famous X-Files slogans “I want to believe” and “The truth is somewhere out there”, the Ancient Astronaut theories operate with disenchanting, this-worldly ‘explanations’ of religion: a) Gods and goddesses are explained in Euhemeristic fashion as humanoid astronauts, and b) myths, revelations, sacred scriptures have to be understood in ‘technical’ terms of the modern scientific world view and space age (the quest for a ‘provable’ revelation).
5) A new synthesis between technology and religion. – The ‘explanatory’ gesture of PSETI is clearly obliged to similar modern and post-modern attempts at linking the gap between the scientific-technological world-view and religion/spirituality. As in esoteric versions of UFO faith, the solution may be found a) in technological explanations of religion or b) in religious re-enchantments of technology – or c) in mixtures of both. The traditional PSETI endeavor is mainly dedicated to the first option (a), but there are also many tendencies to move on into (b) forms of manifest esotericism and/or UFO faith.
5. “Everything is only a question of technology” (E. von Däniken)
The basic methods and results found in the Ancient Astronaut discourse or Paleo-SETI endeavor can be characterized as follows:
(1) The ‘will to believe’, the attempt at taking myths ‘seriously’ (in a quasi-Schliemann way) in the search for the ‘true’ hidden meaning of religious traditions and artifacts is wed together with the modern dream of scientific miracles, of hitherto unknown possibilities in science and technology, which have become thinkable in the late modern space age: possibilities, which space alien astronauts must clearly have had in their hands. – This typical oscillation between a critical modern science and the interest in religious traditions and artifacts can then be further developed a) into ‘real’ critical science or b) into manifest esotericism and UFO faith, into ‘real’ religion, so to speak. As a matter of observation, PSETI protagonists have often taken either of the following choices: there are those who went into science or sober academic prose after their juvenile contact with the Ancient Astronaut discourse or others who went on to propose additional esoteric interpretations of religion, sometimes in connection to the ‘Contactee’ versions of UFO faith. In fact, the Ancient Astronaut discourse has always served as a strong impulse into the modern strands of esotericism and UFO-faith, although its faithful adherents remained loyal to this ‘middle path’ between the two extremes.
(2) The working methods in the Paleo-SETI endeavor are basically technological projections onto the surface of ancient religious texts and artifacts – projections from a scientific space age era into a remote religious and cultural past. Interestingly, the focus here is always on ‘hard’ sciences and technology, or as Erich von Däniken himself has put it once: “Everything is only a question of technology” (41), since for modern man the ancient religions “have to be interpreted in modern ways and made technologically intelligible”. (42) Modern technological and ‘hard’ scientific interpretations serve as the true meaning of sacred scriptures, myths or pictorial and architectural representations. For the participant, such interpretations appear plausible and intelligible, because they are framed in the language games of the modern world-view. To the outside observer, these projections must appear as a grand reflection or echo of the modern technological world-view in a deliberately distorted mirror called ‘ancient times’. – But technological projections are also important at the other end of the discourse: in the propagation and ‘staging’ of the Ancient Astronaut narrations by means of advanced technological media. The more sophisticated and ‘realistic’ the media can be, the more credible and ‘effective’ are the contents of the mediated discourse.
(3) Hermeneutically, the Paleo-SETI endeavor uses uncritical hermeneutics of technological self-reassurance: It is heavily based on a modern world-view which reconstructs man – from primordial times onward – almost exclusively as ‘technological man’, as homo technologicus. And here, one does find many family resemblances to ideological or religious rhetoric, because the Ancient Alien Astronauts appear as ‘culture heroes’ for Modernity, so to speak. As in traditional creation or foundation myths, these space alien ‘culture heroes’ also came to initiate culture, new technology and ‘progress. In this light, all the incredible technological achievements in former times, or the religious reverence to far-advanced so-called ‘gods’ (etc.) – all these instances are indeed appearing as nothing but “memories to the future” (in allusion to the brilliant original title of von Däniken’s first book) – memories from a remote past to our own space age present time and future. To the student of mankind’s religious history, the Ancient Astronaut narrations must therefore be seen as a truly mythic – or ‘neo-mythic’ – activity: They present a new mythic foundation for modern man and his scientific and technological mode of being in the world.
Here lies one of the imminent ‘traps’ in field research. A major problem of interrelating PSETI and science(s) is: PSETI is not simply a subject matter, an object of study – but they do claim that they are using scientific methods as well, that they should even be considered a real ‘spearhead’ of modern science. One of the field traps for a cultural studies researcher is to take the self-description “we are doing research” all too seriously and then gradually be drawn into a conflict. The discussion with members of some New Religious Movement might be easier to control, because one does not share their religious outlook. But with PSETI adherents it is different, since they always claim to share an academic agenda, yet in a different (i.e. better, more comprehensive) style. Furthermore, they do not want to be perceived as an object of ‘religious studies’ inquiry, to be sure – since they, the true forefront of enlightenment, are not related to any esoteric or spiritual agenda. Interestingly enough, esoteric contactee versions of UFO faith or UFO-related New Religious Movements are in most cases perceived as targets of severe criticism from the perspective of Paleo-SETI discourses, even when incorporating Ancient Astronaut narrations in their cosmology and mythology. (43)
From an academic research perspective, it is hard to accept the PSETI style of lay-‘research’: they prefer to jump from “evidence” to “evidence” issue with all playful lightness, whereas academic research is usually going deeper into one subject, one local culture, one piece of archeology (within one given context). Discussions are difficult, because both, the academic and the PSETI discourses, appear as self-stabilizing and, thus, mutually ‘exclusive’ – without much room for constructive interchange. Therefore, the PSETI protagonists perceives themselves as fundamentally “right” in those cases when defenders of science start to belittle their “research”: this is what we always knew – science is stubborn and “exclusionist” in attitude, they don’t want to look over the rim of their compartmentalized knowledge, and therefore they do not pay attention to our “data”. – Some German PSETI protagonists have come together to form a “Giordano Bruno-Society” (44), taking refuge in this older protagonist of alternative thinking and post-dogmatic enlightenment: he was then punished and ignored, and, so the arguments runs, that is exactly what is happening to us today.
Sometimes, the Paleo-SETI actors speak of themselves as protagonists of a “fantastic science” (or “Phantastische Wissenschaft” in German) – a term which was used as a catch-phrase on the Mystery Park’s Internet-site (45) during its initial phase of construction, and which was also adopted by outsiders to describe the endeavor. The term “fantastic science” is indeed a very good coinage to capture many facets of this discourse: the fascination of ancient puzzles, mysterious solutions to unsolved questions, the employment of a ‘hard” scientific language and argumentations – and at the same time a very close relation to neighboring fantasy genres.
6. Paleo-SETI Philosophy or secular Exo-Theology?
According to the analysis given above, the Paleo-SETI endeavor with its aim towards a new ‘fantastic science’ can be perceived as a ‘neo-mythic’ activity. With its construction of a ‘pre-astronautic protology’ where ancient alien astronauts – instead of gods – ‘created’ man via genetic engineering, it actually serves as a foundation for modern anthropology. Modern ‘technological man’ and his recent access to genetic sciences and the cloning technology can be seen as re-constructing him/herself with primordial technological origins. In so far, and with the ‘will to believe’ in some historicity of the ancient myths, the whole PSETI endeavor can be interpreted as a secular and ufological parallel to creationism. – The Euhemeristic interpretation of ancient gods in the Ancient Astronaut sense also formulates a kind of secular ‘Exo-Theology’, so to speak, and PSETI authors often reflect upon the hidden motives of these ancient “Astronaut Gods”: What was their purpose here on Earth? Why did they manipulate animals and humans. Was Earth some kind of a ‘laboratory’ for them (and still is)? Are they going to return at some point in time – even in the near future, is there any perceivable “ethics” in their behavior (etc.)? When Paleo-SETI authors go into the analysis of the ancient astronauts’ behavior more intensely, the more it appears correct to label their endeavor as some kind of a secular or Euhemerist Exo-Theology: narrations about the humanoid Astronaut ‘Gods’. – Here lies the main connection to UFO-related New Religious Movements or similar strands in New Age and Esotericism, which are open to an incorporation of Ancient Astronaut myths, or even a “secular” Exo-Theology. The most prominent case here is clearly the “Raëlian Religion” with their contactee version of an apocalyptic return of the ancient Astronaut Gods and the alleged successful cloning endeavors of its prestige project “Clonaid” (cf. below). The first New Age Movement with a strong Ancient Astronaut mythology in the vein of von Däniken was the Californian “Sunburst” community or “Brotherhood of the Sun”, led by Norman Paulsen (later renamed “Solar Logos Foundation”). (46) But the arcane mythic foundations of Scientology, for example, also incorporate ideas in the Ancient Astronaut style: Here, a fierce intergalactic ruler is said to have brought earthly souls into this corner of the universe millions of years ago. (47) The reception of the Ancient Astronaut mythology is far-reaching in modern alternative strands of religion and spirituality, be it in the context of organized groups or in individual reconstructions of faith and practice – even groups like the Chinese spiritual movement “Falun gong” are affected by these ideas.
It would demand a separate essay to analyze Erich von Däniken’s own spiritual background and involvement behind his Ancient Astronaut narrations. In his early books one can still find many references to H. P. Blavatsky, for example, and it is clearly not wrong to count him among the technological strand of modern esotericism. In some publications he developed ideas about telepathic communication with the Ancient Astronauts – foremost in his book Erscheinungen (‘appearances’ or ‘manifestations’, in the sense of paranormal “visions” and experiences). It provides the amazed reader with an anthropological foundation for the Paleo-SETI hypothesis:
Von Däniken provides us here with a secular esoteric theory of the human brain: “Extraterrestrial impulses make our brains produce visions. The vision itself is not extraterrestrial: it reveals the wishful thinking of the seer”; and this person is, therefore, “always reproducing the religious frames of the preceding education.” (49) – Accordingly, all visions, auditions and similar extrasensory perceptions are no “religious privilege” at all; finally, even disclosures in the ‘hard sciences’ must be seen as nothing but “memories” from pre-programmed pictures in our unconscious (50). – Erscheinungen is von Däniken’s most ‘esoteric’ book; and he never took up this line of thinking in his later publications but kept very much to his ‘middle path’ of a ‘fantastic science’ – between the extremes of esoteric religiosity and true science.
As already indicated, other authors made more explicit connections to contemporary UFO investigations or to “contactee” versions of UFO faith. Walter-Jörg Langbein for example, a former theology-student and a well-established German author in the Paleo-SETI genre, does make such references to contemporary UFO sightings. In the “postscript” to his early book, Astronautengötter (‘Astronaut Gods’), which came out in several editions following its first publication in 1973, he stresses the point that “the ‘Astronaut-Gods’ of primordial times have always promised to come back from space at some point in time, in order to visit planet Earth again. Much can be said in favor of the thesis that they have actually returned, in our century – yes, in our times, in the present time.” (51) The question therefore is: “What do we have to expect from the Space-Aliens?” … and, since they have already watched us for a long time: “How will they treat us”? (52) The renewed Space Alien interest in human experiments (e.g. abductions) and animal mutilations makes their strictly positive, even ‘angelic’ interpretation by adherents of esoteric UFO faith highly questionable, according to Langbein. (53)
As indicated earlier, there are also some critical voices from within PSETI, especially among younger participants (often students, now in their twenties). By the way, Paleo-SETI is not only a predominantly ‘Germanic’ discourse but also a male-dominated one. I know of a regional activist who is currently trying to work on a better philosophical foundation, to deal with the academic principle of falsification, and to contemplate whether argumentations in favor of the Paleo-SETI hypothesis should be stressed in the vein of a ‘scientific’ argument, or should not rather be developed in the style of a rationally coherent “world-view”, based on a “metaphysical hypothesis” (is the Paleo-SETI hypothesis at all accessible to strict ‘empirical’ testing?). These are interesting recent developments, but it is hard to tell if they will be accepted by mainstream protagonists of the discourse. At the moment, most Paleo-SETI protagonists share the typical quasi-historical ‘middle path’ in the vein of von Däniken, but some tend towards UFO-related esotericism, and still others favor a ‘real’ critical scientific endeavor. (54)
Interestingly, despite the inherited iconoclasm of Charles Fort, the Ancient Astronaut narrations in the Paleo-SETI discourse form in themselves another good example of a self-perpetuating and “exclusionist” discursive strength, violating the findings and artifacts in the light of a preconceived argument in favor of the ubiquitious Ancient Astronauts. Discursive self-immunization is therefore quite an issue in the Paleo-SETI realm. Surely it is not a “religious” activity in itself, not religion in any fuller sense. But there are religious portents in the discourse (as shown above), there are elements and undercurrents, which “load” on a religious factor, so to speak. And it is this recourse to a technologically and scientifically verifiable “truth somewhere out there” (X-files), which is so typical for many – post-religious and post-scientific – discourses. The Paleo-SETI endeavor mostly proceeds in the style of a quasi-historical argumentation, whereas other individuals and groups take the Ancient Astronaut narrations and go deeper into a normative construction of reality with religious and ritual aspects (Sunburst Community, Scientology, Raëlian religion etc.).
Another prominent reception of these narrations is their playful restaging in fantasy novels and Science Fiction movies. As in “Stargate” (mentioned above), several Ancient Astronaut topics and motifs of the Paleo-Seti genre have found their way into the popular cinema. The alleged “Face on Mars”, for example, has inspired a full movie called Mission to Mars (released in the year 2000), which developed a grand and typical Ancient Astronaut narration: A human space crew finds the remnants of an old Alien race on Mars, located under a hill shaped in the form of a humanoid face. After entering this Space Alien construction, the astronauts from Earth are introduced (via high-tech holographic media) into the ‘true’ history of their planet: It was the Aliens, having once lived on Mars, who then ‘created’ the earthly animals and humans with the help of their genetic engineering. They left the “Face on Mars” as a ‘time capsule’ to be later detected by their artificial ‘children’. – Or, to cite another example, in the movie Alien vs. Predator (2005), archeologists detect some remnants of Alien interventions on Earth, which suddenly shed light on their former self-staging as Mesoamerican ‘Gods’.
What can be observed in these movies, simply in the form of an entertaining Science Fiction story, appears fully developed as a whole-hearted foundation-mythology in the “Raëlian Religion”. But it should be kept in mind: the Ancient Astronaut myth is always a ‘broken’ myth – it is a mythic narration which is typical of the fantastic literary genres of modernity: narratives where the “supernatural” is always “explained” – explained away in rational terms. (55) In the same style of modern fantasy literature’s rational, immanent explanations of mysterious places, ghosts and ‘paranormal’ events, the Ancient Astronaut narrations always come up with a rational, immanent (though Space Alien) and “technological” explanation of mysterious architecture, alleged ‘gods’, sacred scriptures and visions. – How, then, does a socially organized new religion cope with such a modern ‘broken’ myth?
7. The paradigmatic case of the “Raëlian Religion”
The “Raëlian Religion” (Religion Raëlienne) can be addressed as the missing link between hard-core versions of Contactee UFO-religions and the quasi-historical Paleo-SETI discourse. In 1973, French-born Claude Vorilhon aka “Raël” experienced the ‘living proof’, so to speak, of the Ancient Astronaut narrations of Charroux and von Däniken (whom he had read before). In his first revelation, The Book which Tells the Truth (“Le livre qui dit la vérité”, 1974) (56), he narrates the exciting contact with an Ancient Space Alien named “Jahwe” (!): During a hike in the hills of Clermont Ferrand, he allegedly encountered the landing of a UFO with a greenish Alien of 1,2 meters in size, descending and providing him with a crash course on the interventions of ancient alien astronauts in the Bible (‘Bible-SETI’). All the typical Charroux and von Däniken topics reappear in his narration: Originally, the biblical "Elohim" had been extraterrestrial space pilots, engaging themselves in a huge terra-forming project on earth, implying genetic engineering and a grand ‘creation’ and manipulation of the human race (etc.). Claude Vorilhon receives the call as “prophet” Raël, because he is a simple man and therefore he would not overcomplicate the revelations given to him (as a proper scientist would probably do). Humankind, constantly watched by their older ‘creators’, is about to enter a new phase, the “age of the apocalypse”, when humans are finally able to reproduce technically – and manipulate – themselves as they want, to move out into outer space and to colonize and cultivate other planets in analogy to their own primordial extraterrestrial creator-heroes. Ideals of breeding individuals at will, of governing mankind by an oligarchy of chosen intellectuals (“geniocracy”) are combined with the idea of a “scientific reincarnation”, where genetic engineering will serve as a mode of ‘apotheosis’, of getting access to eternal life by the “cloning” of a new body including a transfer or “download” of the individual consciousness. If the whole process of ‘creation’ was nothing but an incident of (Space Alien) genetic engineering, or if man, then, is nothing but a self-programming “biological computer”, why should humans refrain from laying hands at their own DNA-sequence, to ‘update’, re-produce and re-create new forms of themselves ‘in their own image’ (including deficient biological service-androids). (57)
The “Raëlian Religion” describes itself correctly as an “atheistic” religion, (58) since it is based on the typical Ancient Astronaut idea of humanoid Space Alien ‘creators’. It therefore develops a fully secular ‘theology’ – in correlation to a secular, if not to say ‘technical’ anthropology. Accordingly, this “religion” does not have much room for rituals any more. The only significant ritual is the so-called “Transmission of the Cellular Code”, provided by one of the „Guides“ (a regional leader) via telepathic contact to the Space Alien computer on a space craft – a process which is a prerequisite for the “scientific reincarnation” process awaiting faithful members after their death. – I cannot go into details of Raëlian faith now, (59) but what we can study in this case is the example of a community, which is at the same time ‘post-religious’ and ‘post-scientific’. With the secular framework of the ‘fantastic science’ in the style of the Ancient Astronaut narration it provides its members with a post-religious orientation based on a ‘verifiable’ immanent truth of the religious traditions and scriptures, which nevertheless re-enchants heavenly spheres with a benevolent space crew waiting to be officially received on Earth in an international “Space Embassy” (which still awaits its establishment), and which includes new “prophets”, the hope for “eternal life” (via cloning and “scientific reincarnation”) and even a hedonistic “paradise” for chosen ones on the Elohim’s planet.
To the student of religion, such an apotheosis of man and the idea of cultivating other worlds (the ability to create and lead other worlds in a ‘God’-like manner) does not appear strange within the flux of modern religious soteriologies (the “Mormons” are a striking early example in our religious history). But the anthropology here, the image of man, is reconstructed in the mode of a secular mythic foundation. Man is – and has never been anything else but – a technical product of genetic engineering. Why should he hesitate to modify, to “update” this “biological computer”, and to reproduce or alter it in whatever mode possible: he/she is simply a ‘tool’ in his/her hands. But this ‘immanentistic’ and technical interpretation of the human condition is a direct result of an Ancient Astronaut foundation-myth having gained fully normative and performative status within a world-view. – Scientology and its arcane Science Fiction myths behind the public appearance would be another prominent example for such a “religious technology” (an emic Scientology-term) or ‘technological religion’, which is based on an Ancient Astronaut narration as core myth. But, unfortunately, this is another story, which has to be told some other time.
8. Towards a Conclusion
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.“
The Swedish archeologist Pia Andersson is probably right in saying that conventional narrations in archeology – and I would add: in religious studies, in ethnography and history – are nowadays “up for a challenge” by the Paleo-SETI endeavor and especially its high-tech restaging of Ancient Astronaut narrations in the Swiss “Mystery Park”. (60) We in academia, are indeed challenged to present our findings in better ways and in a more understandable manner, since we cannot leave the terrain to these overtly ‘fantastic’ reconstructions. But one thing is clear: the struggle about the right interpretation of so-called “damned data” cannot be settled merely by rational arguments. People are always in search of the mysterious, the hidden and the conspiracy behind the overt scene. Surely, to play with the fantasy genre (61) is often more entertaining and inspiring than a straight report of sober academic facts and theories. The famous Einstein sentence quoted above, therefore, also seems well chosen as a chapter’s motto in one of Erich von Däniken’s books. (62)
To many of our contemporaries, at least, the mysterious conspiracy story about the “Ancient Astronaut Gods” seems to appear more plausible and understandable than traditional religious interpretations of the texts – and much more plausible and understandable than straightforward academic scientific interpretations. The Ancient Astronaut narrations knit together our specific late-modern mode of being-in-the-world with a lay-people’s attempt at a new search for the fundamental truth of the myth: They still “want to believe”, and they find it plausible that a pre-astronautic “truth is somewhere out there”, yet to be discovered by mainstream society. The self-evident technological possibilities of our age (and much more beyond that) are projected back into a remote past, and the result is a shining mirror of us, and of our time. – Paleo-SETI adherents can thus be seen as the latter-days-prophets of a space age past, providing us with a mythic foundation for modern ‘technological man’ in the space age and genetic engineering era. But this new interpretative ‘unity of reality’ is gained with a great loss: The original contexts of the data are fully neglected and neutralized, and all the puzzling great achievements of our human ancestors all over the world are diminished and ‘explained away’ in a new ‘exclusionist’ manner when ubiquitous Ancient Astronaut Gods seem to lurk behind every mysterious or unexplainable corner of history. Let me close with Charles Fort’s famous words, formulating the interrelated dynamics of change between religion and science – a coinage which lies at the very heart of Paleo-SETI’s self-understanding as a true spearhead of a future all-encompassing science:
But – as we have seen – it remains extremely questionable whether the current “superstition” of Paleo-SETI with its Ancient Astronaut narrations can ever make it into a “science of tomorrow”.
Literature and Notes:
© Andreas Grünschloß (Marburg 2006). Marburg Journal of Religion ISSN 1612-2941