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, traveler’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 PBS
Volguine, Alexandre Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
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Nova 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.
Sources
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.