(Swans - November 5, 2012) Sometime in the early history of ancient Greece, the Greeks came into contact with the Medes, an Iranian people living in Western Anatolia and the Caucasus. These people worshiped in holy places that they called yazona (= Persian ayadana), and the Greeks were greatly confused by this strange word. To them it sounded very much like Iasonion, which they interpreted as altars sacred to the hero Jason (Iason in Greek), of Argonautic fame. From this "discovery" of a landscape studded with temples to Jason, the Greeks concluded that the Argonauts had conquered the Near East, and that the Medes were, by the same similarity of sound, the descendants of Jason's son Medus, by his wife, the sorceress Medea. (1) (The Persians, they thought, were descendants of Perseus.) The Greeks believed so strongly in this story that the Macedonian general Parmenio destroyed the sacred yazona wherever he found them to raise up his boss, Alexander the Great, over the mythic Jason, though he later atoned by restoring the Jason temple at Abdera. (2)
This object lesson in ancient hubris is a useful case study in how cultural assumptions and ethnocentric desires color the way even the most educated individuals interpret and understand the world around them. It also leads us to a deeper understanding of how the ad hoc explanations proposed for historical and cultural facts can open a window on the cultural expectations and values that popular theorists, especially those in the New Age and "alternative" archaeology movements, unconsciously foist onto history in their quest to rewrite the past to make it more palatable to the present.
Nowhere, perhaps, is this more obvious in the various theories proposed to explain the peopling of the Americas. Since the eighteenth century, mainstream scholars have understood that the Americas were populated from Asia, by peoples whose origins could be traced back to Siberia. But this fact, well-attested by archaeology, has been under near-constant assault almost from the first. Early opponents, almost all in the United States, stressed potential visitors from the high cultures of the Old World, including the peoples of Vedic India, the Phoenicians, and above all the Hebrews. An entire religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), was established on the belief that the Hebrews were the founding population of the Americas. Such theories were, in retrospect, designed to provide a suitably historic foundational myth for the United States, a country in search of an identity to replace the British history it had shed. The upshot of this myth was the Trail of Tears, which President Andrew Jackson specifically justified with an appeal to lost founders who predated the Native Americans: "In the monuments and fortresses of an unknown people, spread over the extensive regions of the west, we behold the memorials of a once powerful race, which was exterminated, or has disappeared, to make room for the existing savage tribes." (3) This massacre, he said, was why removal of the Native Americans was not merely right but would restore America to its rightful heirs.
The growth pangs of the new nation soon gave way to imperial ambitions; the era of Manifest Destiny and America's entry onto the world stage required a suitably imperial mythology as precedent. In place of the Hebrews, former Minnesota congressman Ignatius Donnelly proposed the longest-lasting of American myths: the global empire of Atlantis, an expansionist power spreading civilization around the world, an almost transparent analogy for America's self-conception. (4) There was precedent for this, of course. The Spanish had previously claimed Atlantis as the founding population of America: "The Indies are either the island and firm land of Plato or the remnant of the same," (5) Francisco López de Gómara had written in 1552, associating the new owners of the Americas, Spain, with a grand, mythic imperial predecessor. Atlantis recurred in Spanish writings for the next two centuries. It was, as always, the myth of the conquerors, beloved also in the British Empire and Imperial Germany, but of very little importance to the conquered.
The Atlantis theme, under another name, made its latest resurgence in the boom years of the 1990s, when the West celebrated the defeat of communism and stood astride the world like a colossus. In the last days of what George Will called the "holiday from history," British journalist Graham Hancock capitalized on Western triumphalism by reviving the myth of an earlier, equally great, pre-Western civilization, which he declined to name but obviously meant as an analogue for Atlantis. (6) His lost civilization was global, deeply spiritual, intellectually advanced, and composed of, it must be said, "lean, bearded white men" (specifically a "distinctively non-Indian ethnic type") who traveled to all the places where non-white people lived and gave them science, technology, and culture. (7) It is very difficult to read this theory -- for which there is virtually no supporting evidence -- as anything other than a reflection of the self-image of the "white" nations (America, Britain, Canada, Australia, etc.) in the moment of their shared Anglo-American cultural dominance.
Today, things are a little different. Western civilization is plagued with a sense of decadence and decline diagnosed by Jacques Barzun in 2000 and exacerbated by 9/11, inconclusive warfare, and the economic crises of the past decade. (8) The biggest economic story of the past twenty years has been the rise of China, and it is little wonder then that a few years ago in England, the fallen remnant of Empire, a retired submariner named Gavin Menzies revived a forgotten claim by the German scholar Karl Friedrich Neumann (himself citing a 1761 French original) that an imperialist China had discovered and colonized America. (9) When Neumann made this claim in the 1860s, (10) China was a colonial backwater, and the idea was seen as ridiculous and promptly forgotten, despite occasional revivals. It was no competitor for the glories of imperial Atlantis. Menzies's evidence differs from Neumann's (he favors a medieval date to Neumann's fifth-century one), though not in its low quality, but Menzies wrote in a different time, and his celebration of a resurgent China turned him into a celebrity and his claim into both a book and a multi-part PBS documentary. Atlantis has been all but forgotten in the zeitgeist (though not among various fringe communities, for whom no obscure idea is ever entirely forgotten (11)), a fatuous relic of imperial times, unfit for the current mood.
Instead, today we are experiencing a revival of a different kind of pseudoscience: the ancient astronaut theory, the claim that extraterrestrials arrived on the prehistoric earth and interacted with early humans, providing them with advanced culture. The government of China actively endorses this theory, (12) as did the Soviet government before it. In fact, the Soviets felt that the Chinese purposely supported the ancient astronaut theory as a way of channeling China's growing intellectual energy away from political reform. (13) The Soviets knew something about this; the Communist government endorsed the ancient astronaut theory from 1959 to 1970 as a secular alternative to religion because it provided a seemingly "scientific" explanation for angels, religious miracles, and the Bible that could be used for ideological purposes to undermine the religious ideas of the West. (14) To that end, the Soviet government allowed its scientists to fabricate evidence for ancient astronauts and disseminate that false evidence to the West, where it later appeared in the bestselling works of writers like Erich von Däniken and Zecharia Sitchin. Even the Russian-born French writer Jacques Bergier, a staunch believer in ancient astronauts, lamented in the 1970s that the Soviets "accept such evidence a little too easily, and it is not always very convincing." (15)
In 1970, the Soviet Academy of Physics put a stop to the nonsense and disclaimed the existence of ancient astronauts after a decade spent selling them to the West. This change of policy had been brewing since 1968, when the American embassy in Moscow noted that the country's media had suddenly turned on UFOs and ancient astronauts. New media reports debunking UFOs, the embassy wrote with great interest, made "no attempt to square this belief with previously published Soviet articles." (16) Perhaps one reason for the Soviet change of heart was the failure of ancient astronauts to displace religion in the West.
Right after the Soviets dropped them, ancient astronauts began a decade of unrivaled popularity in America, largely on the back of Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling's 1973 TV adaptation of an Academy Award-nominated German documentary about the theories of Swiss hotelier (and convicted embezzler) Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods (1968). In Search of Ancient Astronauts was a cultural touchstone in the economically depressed decade of Watergate, oil shock, and fears of American decline. In the wake of Time Magazine's famous question of whether God was dead, a sizable portion of the public embraced the idea of a superior race of saviors who could serve to restore traditional faith in God and His angels under another name. (17) But the idea wasn't new. Helena Blavatsky, the opportunistic founder of Theosophy, had imagined angels as extraterrestrial visitors from Venus in the nineteenth century, and the American preachers John Miller and George Van Tassel spent the 1950s and 1960s asking the public to worship aliens. Miller claimed God spoke through flying saucers like those in the Book of Ezekiel and Miller that Venusians were the true God of the Bible. For their troubles, both were monitored by the FBI as threats to national security and never achieved widespread popularity.
Not so Erich von Däniken. His theories, liberally borrowed (often verbatim) from Jacques Bergier, Louis Pauwels, and Robert Charroux (all of whom von Däniken eventually credited in a later edition of Chariots to stave off plagiarism charges), found him interviewed in Playboy, appearing with Johnny Carson on the Tonight show, and taking every opportunity to not just promote aliens but to advance his conservative political agenda. He took pains to stress that the ancient astronaut theory was fully compatible with traditional Christian religion (18) (despite his original contention that Jesus was an alien, deleted by his publisher (19)) and he lobbied then-president Gerald Ford to pander to UFO believers to secure re-election in 1976 and thus advance the conservative agenda for another four years. He urged the president to combat what he called "socialist dreamers" worldwide and to militarize space to protect Mars from communists. (20) Ford ignored the advice and lost the election, but von Däniken went on to become increasingly conservative, recently adopting the mantle of a prophet and promising that the aliens would return to judge the living and the dead for their "sins," including genetic engineering. He now claims the aliens will help us refute the liberal theories of global warming and human evolution. (21) The irony is that the ancient astronaut theory in Europe had been the tool of socialist New Agers like Jacques Bergier but in the U.S. had, through the agency of a Swiss, become a conservative counterweight to the New Age.
One of Von Däniken's bestselling rivals was Zecharia Sitchin, the late ancient astronaut theorist who claimed to be the only person on earth who correctly understood Sumerian, which he promptly confused with Akkadian (just as he confused Hebrew and Aramaic). Sitchin was less political than von Däniken, and as a result his theories, while less appealing to the mainstream media, have a smaller but more devoted following. In his "theory" the aliens were cosmic wanderers, traveling the universe in a mobile planet, obsessively collecting gold, manipulating other planets' politics, and reveling in their intellectual achievements and their cultivated separation from other species. The parallels to the anti-Semitic stereotype of the gold-hungry intellectual Jews who run the world in secret from their ghettos are so painfully obvious that only Sitchin, an Azerbaijani Jew who lived for years in Israel, could fail to see them. Sitchin unconsciously emphasized these parallels by drawing nearly all of his "evidence" for the aliens from Jewish texts and the Near Eastern myths the ancient Jews had interacted with.
A third contemporary theorist, Robert Temple, had some academics fooled with his claim that flying space frogs from Sirius gave civilization to the Sumerians, largely because of his ability to fill The Sirius Mystery (1976) with hundreds of footnotes to inaccurate and obsolete sources, which he misunderstood. (22) Several positive reviews by academics (though not archaeologists) gave Temple the patina of scholarship. But after his thesis was conclusively refuted by actual field research, (23) Temple descended into a New Age fog, imagining that the CIA, other world spy agencies, and "the hypnosis community" (don't ask) were stalking him across his home of London and they (not his scholarly shortcomings) were sabotaging his career. (24) While the US government had investigated some ancient alien theorists with cult followings in the early 1960s, my own survey of all declassified CIA and other US government documents finds no evidence of any interest in Temple or his Sirius "mystery."
The ancient astronaut theory had its heyday in the 1970s and gradually withered during the 1980s as economic prosperity drove away the spirit of ennui and returned America to a full-throated embrace of superpower status, reflected in renewed enthusiasm for the empire of Atlantis and its "lost civilization" mirror-images. But after 9/11 the heady confidence of the Atlantis empire-builders gave way to the aliens again, and the economic crisis of recent years opened the door to a renewed call for a mythic past of savior gods, especially those who could be expected to return to punish the wicked and reward the righteous, preferably by December 23, 2012, the (incorrectly assumed) end date of the Mayan calendar.
The rumblings of renewed interest in ancient astronauts began in the early years of the twenty-first century when the History Channel began running more frequent episodes of History's Mysteries exploring ancient astronauts, and other cable channels followed suit. By 2009, this spawned Ancient Aliens, a two-hour History Channel documentary (which, full disclosure, attacked me as a "skeptic") reintroducing the ancient astronaut theory. Ratings were so high that History commissioned Ancient Aliens: The Series, which has aired more than forty episodes since 2010 claiming alien intervention in everything from Stonehenge to the Revolutionary War. The program, led by charismatic "ancient astronaut theorist" Giorgio Tsoukalos (who, full disclosure, has actively disliked me since I interviewed him in college) and "lost civilization scholar" David Childress (who, again, full disclosure, has attacked me in print for labeling him an ancient astronaut theorist before he came out as such) offered speculation freed from facts, a comforting narrative about aliens as angels who would lift the souls of the dead to an extraterrestrial heaven (through a "quantum window" opened by human blood loss), (25) and a prophecy of the aliens' imminent return: "It's hard to know the future," Childress told viewers, "what's going to happen at the end of 2012 -- but it seems that perhaps the Mayans had some glimpse into the future that we have yet to find out." (26)
Freed from the earlier generation of writers' feints toward appropriating the legitimacy of science and scholarship, the new ancient astronaut theory of Ancient Aliens had become an all-out religious revival. (Creationists and fringe "spiritual" leaders were among its talking heads.) The "ancient astronaut theorists" asked viewers to worship the aliens and join them in condemning global warming, human evolution, and scientific inquiry as heresy against the aliens' agenda. The aliens are punishing us right now for our hubris with major earthquakes and hurricanes, the theorists, sounding like a wrathful Pat Robertson, said. (27) Instead, viewers were urged to equate the aliens with angels, pray for the aliens to spirit their consciousness to the aliens' plane of eternal bliss, and support traditional social and economic hierarchies as decreed by the aliens who were, in every sense that counts, gods.
The ancient astronaut theory, as depicted on Ancient Aliens, had collapsed in on itself. The twentieth century version of the theory had argued that ancient gods were really aliens; its modern religious version told Ancient Aliens' 1.5 million weekly viewers that the aliens were in fact their true gods. At least the Raëlians and Scientologists had the courtesy to admit upfront that their ancient astronaut theories were alternative religions. Ancient Aliens' slipshod pseudo-scholars wrap their faux religion in the borrowed raiment of science and appear to pray for a future when they will be granted their rightful place as prophets, or kings.
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Jason Colavito is an author and editor based in Albany, New York. He is internationally recognized by scholars, literary theorists, and scientists for his pioneering work exploring the connections between science, pseudoscience, and speculative fiction. As the author of several critically-acclaimed books, his investigations examine the way human beings create and employ the supernatural to alter and understand our reality and our world. Visit his Web site at jasoncolavito.com. (back)
5. Francisco López de Gómara, Historia general de las Indias, adapted from the translation appearing in Richard Eden, The First Three English Books on America (?1511-1555 A.D.), ed. Edward Arber (Westminster: Archibald Constable and Co., 1895), p.347. (back)
11. The conservative Jewish scholar Richard Freund, for example, has employed pseudoscientific methods to appropriate Atlantis as the Biblical kingdom of Tarshish in order to "prove" the Bible's King Solomon narrative true, a theory he shared in the 2011 National Geographic Channel documentary Finding Atlantis. (back)
12. The Chinese National Science and Technology Department staged an exhibition in Beijing in July endorsing supposedly 100-million-year-old extraterrestrial jade sculptures. See Yin Yeping, "Unraveling the X-Files," Global Times (China), June 25, 2012 and "Carved 'Aliens' in Ancient Times," People's Daily Online, July 18, 2012. (back)
17. The simultaneous return of religious conservatism can also be attributed to many of the same forces arising from a crisis of confidence in the secular culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and sparked, in part, by popular culture, particularly the movie version of The Exorcist (1973). See Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism (New York: Broadway Books, 2001). (back)
20. Erich von Däniken to Gerald Ford, January 8, 1976. This extraordinary document is housed in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland but was released upon my request, and I have posted it on my Web site, JasonColavito.com. (back)
24. Robert Temple, The Sirius Mystery: New Scientific Evidence of Alien Contact 5,000 Years Ago (Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1998), pp.7-10; Robert Temple, "Who Was Moses," New Dawn, special issue 8, Winter 2009, p.53. (back)