Von Däniken, Erich (1935-)
Von Däniken, Erich (1935-)
Swiss writer whose 1969 book, Chariots of the Gods, gave focus to a wave of popular interest in the idea that in ancient times the earth was visited by extraterrestrials whose presence is documented in a variety of archeological remains. Born in Zofingen, Switzerland, April 14, 1935, he was brought up in a conservative Roman Catholic setting at St. Michel College in Fribourg. At an early age von Däniken was fascinated by "inconsistencies" between religious doctrine and the accounts of mysterious events in the Bible. After leaving school, he took various jobs in hotels, and this seasonal work left him with spare time that he spent in traveling and reading. He visited South America, Russia and Egypt, seeing firsthand many of the monuments of the ancient past.
In his reading, he was particularly impressed by the biblical account of Ezekiel's fiery wheel and by Sumerian accounts of the coming of the Sun God in the ancient epic of Gilgamesh. Von Däniken began to evolve a theory of sky-borne gods in vehicles resembling accounts of flying saucers, built around the religious legends and myths of ancient civilizations. With the advent of American and Soviet space travel, such theories became much more plausible to many people.
In 1961, von Däniken started publishing articles about his theories and by 1966 had prepared a book, Erinnerungen an die Zukunft, which was published in Germany and serialized in the Swiss newspaper Die Weltwoche. This book was translated into English and published in England in 1969 and in the United States the following year under the title Chariots of the Gods? Von Däniken's introduction stated:
"I claim that our forefathers received visits from the universe in [the] remote past. Even though I do not know who these extraterrestrial intelligences were or from which planet they came, I nevertheless proclaim that these 'strangers' annihilated part of mankind existing at the time and produced a new, perhaps the first homo sapiens. "
As evidence, von Däniken cited accounts of cosmic battles in ancient legends and inscriptions suggestive of space travel. In later books he supported his theories by further legends, travel-er's tales and photographs of ancient religious inscriptions.
Critics jumped upon von Däniken's facile interpretations such as his claims that Mayan temple figures and inscriptions represent spacemen at the controls of their vehicles. Such interpretations pulled odd artifacts out of their cultural context, revealed a significant misunderstanding of ancient cultural motifs, and falsely assumed that "ancient" astronauts would employ "twentieth-century" technology and design.
More crucial to his credibility, however, von Däniken admitted to falsifying his presentation. In an interview on the PBSNova science program on television in 1978, he confessed that he had not really explored an artifact-filled cave in South America as claimed in his book The Gold of the Gods (1973). In fact the artifacts were brass, not gold. He admitted:
"No that did not happen, but I think when somebody writes books in my style and in my sense, which are not scientific books, we call it in German 'Sachbucher.' It's a kind of popular book but it's not science fiction, though all the facts do exist but with other interpretations. Then an author is allowed to use effects. So some little things like this are not really important because they do not touch the facts …"
This astonishing defense of falsehood in order to strengthen a romantic interpretation of facts necessarily casts doubt on Von Däniken's theories. Von Däniken has not appeared perturbed by adverse criticism from scholars and scientists. He believes that his unconventional interpretations of mythology and archaeology will be generally accepted in the course of time.
Von Däniken has found his strongest support in the writings of Zecharia Sitchin. His theories have been debunked by Ronald Story and Clifford Wilson. In light of the intense criticism the idea of ancient astronauts received in the late 1970s, the wave of interest in the idea subsided and new books on the subject have become quite rare.
Sitchin, Zecharia. The 12th Planet. New York: Stein and Day, 1976.
——. The Wars of Gods and Men. New York: Avon, 1985.
Story, Ronald D. The Space-Gods Revealed. New York: Harper & Row, 1976; Barnes & Noble, 1978.
Von Däniken, Erich. According to the Evidence: My Proof of Man's Extraterrestrial Origin. London: Souvenir, 1977.
——. Chariots of the Gods? London: Souvenir Press, 1969. Reprint, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1970.
——. The Gods and Their Grand Design: the Eighth Wonder of the World. London: Souvenir, 1984.
——. The Gold of the Gods. London: Souvenir Press, 1973.
——. In Search of Ancient Gods; My Pictorial Evidence for the Impossible. London: Souvenir Press, 1974.
Wilson, Clifford. Crash Go the Chariots. New York: Lancer, 1972.