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Erich von Däniken

Erich von Däniken believes that ancient alien astronauts visited Earth many millennia ago, in order to carry out a mission of extreme galactic importance -- building pyramids out of mud and rock. Däniken is so convinced of the truth of this statement that he has distorted real evidence and manufactured fraudulent evidence to support his claims. Because, you see, it's very important that you believe him. Important for humanity.

There are few characters as weird as Däniken in the history of fake science. His career started when he dropped out of pre-junior-seminary school. This was a wise move on his part, since the Vatican tends to frown on heresy.

A junior-junior-seminary school dropout in his native Switzerland, Däniken realized he wasn't cut out for the priesthood around the time that he decided the Bible's many descriptions of angels and other heavenly manifestations were actually historical records of UFO landings.

von Däniken wandered the world in search of archaeological evidence that could be construed as evidence of extraterrestrial visitation -- by a sufficiently motivated observer. All this research led to the publication of his first book, Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, in 1967.

von Däniken's early wanderings were underwritten by the Swiss hotel where he worked as a young man. Unfortunately, he hadn't bothered to inform the hotel it was underwriting his book, and management didn't take kindly to it when they found out, or so the story goes. The same year that Chariots of the Gods? hit the bookstands, Däniken was convicted of fraud and embezzlement and sentenced to more than three years in prison. (von Däniken claims the charges were "rubbish" and were later overturned.)

While Däniken enjoyed a sabbatical penning his follow-up book in the Swiss prison system, Chariots of the Gods? was levitating its way up the bestseller lists, possibly through the use of alien electromagnetic antigravity technology.

One year earlier, Time Magazine had famously proposed that God was dead. In the wake of that obituary, Däniken offered up a pseudoscientific explanation to fill the void. It didn't hurt that the UFO craze had shifted into high gear a few years earlier, after a wave of sightings and the infamous tale of Barney and Betty Hill, who claimed to have been abducted by aliens in New Hampshire in 1961.

von Däniken's work tapped into a developing global zeitgeist in which radical ideas beat at the doors of academia. Unfortunately, Däniken differed from many of these radical thinkers in some key respects -- including logic and honesty. His main points can be summarized thusly:

  • Ancient people were stupid and lazy.
  • Therefore they were unable to construct such artifacts as Stonehenge and the Pyramids on their own initiative.
  • Therefore aliens must have helped them.
  • One way they helped was by inducing mutations in cavemen to make them smarter.
  • Therefore nearly any religious image or reference in the entire history of the human race is evidence that aliens visited ancient Earth.
  • Furthermore, extraterrerstrial visitors and their high-tech gizmos are obviously the subject of any primitive artwork not obviously depicting bison. And we're not sure about some of those bison pictures either.
  • Furtherfurthermore, anything written more than 300 years ago stands a good chance of describing aliens, from the Bible to the Rig Vedas to the Oresteia to the Magna Carta. OK, maybe not the Magna Carta.
  • Aliens are primarily interested in using their mind-blowing technological advancements to help ape-men make large piles of rocks, such as Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt and Mesoamerica.
  • They also like having runways for their flying saucers to land on (despite the fact that flying saucers would not seem to require runways, since they tend to rise straight into the air, if you believe the hype).
In addition to whatever logical flaws you may detect in the points above, Däniken had deeper credibility problems. For instance, he blatantly forged several pieces of "evidence" that ancient astronauts had visited the earth. When confronted with the forgeries by PBS science program NOVA in 1978, Däniken explained that he had a very good reason for the forgeries -- because people wouldn't believe his book otherwise.

You would think that a book based on blatant and admitted lies would quietly vanish from the bestseller lists in shame. But that's the sort of wrongheaded notion that belongs to a rational and just world. In the real world where we actually live, Däniken shrugged off the fraud as a momentary inconvenience. Today, there are something like 65 million copies of Däniken's various tomes in circulation worldwide.

But that's just the tip of the merchandising iceberg. There are also the movies, the TV specials (aired with tedious predictability on The Learning Channel during sweeps) and, of course, the theme park.

Yes, theme park. As Däniken approached his 70s, he realized his legacy to the world was incomplete. He rustled up about $70 million or $80 million in funding to build a lasting monument to his wacky theories.

Mystery Park contains reproductions of the Egyptian pyramids, the Mayan pyramids and Stonehenge -- all no doubt meticulously accurate in their depiction of ancient astronauts. Conveniently located in the Swiss Alps, the theme park has been a surprising success. For just $38 dollars a head, tourists can see fake artifacts just like the fakes that got the whole ball rolling in Chariots of the Gods? in the first place. And really, what were you going to do with that $38 anyway, buy a gallon of gas?

Like it or not, and many people don't, Erich von Däniken and his ideas are probably with us to stay. Although Däniken himself is a dodgy character, the idea of ancient astronauts has a wide appeal among the same people who gravitate toward Scientology (which also preaches of ancient astronauts).

This demographic includes fairly bright people who have become disenchanted with religion but still want to believe in something -- anything! PLEASE! Däniken and his ilk paint a whisper of pseudoscience on top of the same old Biblical stories, giving them a fresh gloss for a new generation. After all, it's a pretty fine distinction between a belief in mysterious, wise, caring extraterrestrials and a mysterious, wise, caring God.

Needless to say, there are many other options for the discriminating consumer of metaphysical weirdness.

But none of the alternatives have their own theme park. Well, almost none.

In between his pottery-forging projects and meetings of the amusement park board, the 70-year-old Däniken continues to find time to write on an astonishing array of topics, such as Gods from Outer Space, The Gold of the Gods, In Search of Ancient Gods, Miracles of the Gods, Signs of the Gods?, Pathways to the Gods, The Gods and Their Grand Design, I Love the Whole World, , The Day at the Gods Came, We All Are Children of the Gods, The Return of the Gods, The Arrival of the Gods, Odyssey of the Gods and The Gods Were Astronauts. What a Renaissance man!


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