Erich von Däniken and the Virtue of Adventurous Inquiry

Many questions at the intersection between ancient cultures and metaphysics have only be explored by unconventional thinkers like Erich von Däniken

A few weeks ago, I attended an astronomy workshop whose purpose was to conceive of a way to incorporate unexplained astronomical and aerial phenomena within the discipline of astronomy. It was fascinating to see the difficulty that astronomers have in admitting the reality and relevance of any body or force that doesn’t conform to their methods. Various cases were discussed, yet at no point was there any connection between UFOs or any other unusual phenomena and the sun itself. Why not? Historically, no astronomical object has been seen as the source of life, regeneration, and divine power more than the sun, and perhaps the only connection between unusual phenomena and astronomical understanding is itself rooted in ancient history, where such cultures felt no distinction between the sun as an astronomical object and as a spiritual force.

The Great Pyramid of Giza

The ancient Egyptians, for example, had a profound relationship with the sun, which they viewed as a primary source of energy and life force, and, as with other ancient cultures, this sun worship is evident in their religious beliefs, architecture, and daily lives. The pyramids, especially the ones at Giza, showcase this relationship in several ways. Firstly, the pyramidal shape itself can be seen as a representation of the rays of the sun. The slanting sides of the pyramid can be viewed as the sun’s rays descending to the earth, providing a connection between the pharaoh buried inside and the sun god. As is well known, the three pyramids of Giza are also precisely aligned with the three stars of Orion’s Belt, which have associations with Osiris, the god of the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians believed that Osiris became associated with the cycles of the moon and the sun. The solstitial alignment of the pyramids further reinforces their connection with the solar cycle.

Beyond architecture-as-astronomy, there are inscriptions found in some pyramids from the Old Kingdom that frequently invoke the solar deity Ra. These texts contain rituals, spells, and prayers to ensure the deceased pharaoh’s ascent to the heavens and union with the sun god. Ra was the sun god and among the most venerated deities in ancient Egypt. Pharaohs often identified themselves as the “son of Ra” and believed that, in death, they would join Ra in his daily journey across the sky. And in the afterlife, the sun was well spoken for in Pharaonic culture. Near the Great Pyramid of Giza, archaeologists discovered a dismantled ship, often referred to as the “Solar Barge” or the “Khufu Ship”. It is believed that this ship was a ritual vessel to carry the resurrected king with the sun god Ra across the heavens. Contemporary archaeology and astronomy should be in conversation with each other on this subject, except that, since neither believes in metaphysical causation, each can only imagine what the Egyptians might have been thinking in the most limited way.

Depiction of “Solar Barge” or the “Khufu Ship” where the dead head toward the sun.


The “Solar Barge” or the “Khufu Ship” found near the Great Pyramid.


To be sure, there is room for more speculative (but still highly informed) thinking on ancient cultures and alien phenomena. But I have learned that neither astronomy nor archaeology will take the risk. We need to rely on thinkers outside of these disciplines.

In a little over one week, I am supposed to be at the Great Pyramid of Giza with a group of folks that will at one point include the author Erich von Däniken. Erich, now 88 years old and still active, is a remarkably energetic man, having traveled the world in search of physical evidence around one “uncomfortable” question: do ancient sites support evidence of extraterrestrial or non-human intelligence as having been present in now-lost cultures?

To this quest, Erich has devoted a life of profound investigation, judging from the 24 books he has published in the English language alone (he has penned 21 separate investigative books in German). Writing and expeditionary work haven’t been Erich’s only activities, but these alone provide a sense of a life lived entirely focused on questions concerning places and times that conventional archaeological study has consistently underemphasized. In much of the rational, mainstream academic world, Erich is considered a charlatan. The attacks on a person’s work (not to mention on a person’s character) when his work is clearly focused on ideas rather than self-aggrandizement are, in my view, evidence of weak thinking. Erich has aimed to open thinking about ancient sites, none of which have living representatives to confirm or deny any interpretations of what was created there, what it meant, or why it was made at all. Thus, our real rational starting point for all archaeology should be that no evidence exists to exclude any interpretation.

Von Däniken’s first book in English was “Chariots of the Gods?”, first published in 1968. The book popularized the ancient astronaut theory, which suggests that ancient civilizations had contact with extraterrestrial beings who were mistaken for gods. It was the first to make a number of theories that are now accepted as almost conventional beliefs:

Von Däniken cited various ancient monuments, such as the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge, and the Moai statues of Easter Island, as evidence of extraterrestrial influence. Without sophisticated technology, which potential extraterrestrial visitors might have provided, he argued that such structures would not have been possible to construct. The book also draws on religious and historical texts, as well as cave paintings and other forms of ancient art, claiming they depict astronauts, air and space vehicles, and complex technology. Von Däniken interprets these as evidence of extraterrestrial visitations. He further suggests that certain ancient civilizations possessed knowledge beyond what would have been available to them, implying they might have received this knowledge from extraterrestrial beings. As a result of this possibility, von Daniken thinks that gaps in the archaeological record and certain evolutionary leaps could mean that aliens were involved or were guiding us. Finally, the book also touches upon modern UFO sightings and stories as further evidence of ongoing extraterrestrial activities.


In this as well as other books, Von Däniken has treated his readers with a level of respect that he has not often received from academics. Here is the short, direct introduction to “The Gods Never Left Us,” the sequel to “Chariots of the Gods?”. For anyone who considers his work to be careless, it is worth bearing in mind that it is not often that an author writes a sequel fifty years after the original book:

Dear Reader,

In 1966 I wrote my first book, Chariots of the Gods. In the introduction I stated, “Writing this book requires courage—reading it no less so. Because its hypotheses and evidence do not fit into the laboriously constructed mosaic of established conventional wisdom, scholars will put it on the list of those books which it is advisable not to talk about.” Meanwhile, 50 years have passed. My introduction from that time still stands today.

The Gods Never Left Us is most definitely not a compendium of my previous works. In only very few sections do I have to cross-refer to my previous books, but only so that the reader is not left hanging. That extraterrestrials visited Earth millennia ago and influenced our forebears can be proved. But—and this is the ultimate test of our knowledge—ETs are still at work today. And that concerns us all. Why do they do what they do? What does an extraterrestrial species gain from observing us rather like we observe ants? What have the aliens actually wanted in the millennia to the present day? Can’t they leave us in peace? And why do we make it so difficult for ourselves to accept the existence of extraterrestrials?

What characterizes von Däniken’s writing is its non-academic, unreservedly speculative, and polemical nature. When he believes in something, he doesn’t claim it quietly, but with a punch. This might exasperate certain individuals who prefer extended arguments with sources cited directly from the archaeological research literature. Why does he avoid such established lines of research? The problem is that this literature is full of conventional writing, little of which would “take a chance” to say something that may cost the author reputational damage at his or her institution. I have discovered that fear and diligence are both major driving forces behind academic writing. Lamentably, these two elements don’t mix if the honest answers to important questions are to be uncovered. The diligence factor in academia is unseen: a scholar will toil for many days, nights, and years in libraries, studies, and other places of knowledge to select and organize data. The fear factor, too, is invisible: it is built around a consistent (and unwholesome) amount of approval-seeking from editorial boards, colleagues doing peer review, academic departments in universities and colleges, and funding agencies, all of which play a part in deciding the success of a researcher’s career. Are answers possible in this kind of politically controlled environment? Yes – of a scientific nature. But answers to other questions involving “forbidden” topics will not come from these halls, these minds, these hands.

Perhaps, then, it is with some resentment that scholars tied to their universities and disciplines look at von Däniken’s work. He has allowed himself to ask and research whatever questions he pleases. He doesn’t need peer review; he has no tenured professorship to maintain and no department to expose to embarrassment should he state something of an “unorthodox nature.” And the contrary is also true: scholars won’t accept von Däniken’s books as research.

But perhaps they don’t have to. One solution for any skeptic of ancient alien theories is to interpret von Däniken’s writing as essays rather than as research. Indeed, his polemicism often borders on anger, but perhaps this is necessary in order to shake the many encrusted beliefs that, in modern times, now deserve serious questioning. And questioning is what he does, and answering, too. Theories should never have to insult any intellectual, yet von Däniken’s work, like Graham Hancock’s, seems to offend even those who should read them with a more open mind because, all told, many of the ideas may be correct.

Even assuming one wishes to dismiss von Däniken’s work, there is one additional value that these book-length essays do provide. They bring to the public many inconsistencies and secrets that institutionalized authority, for reasons of its own, often keeps away from open inquiry. When it comes to history, all information belongs to the public and should be made public from the outset.

To understand well-informed criticism outside of academic restrictions (which in my view is so important to our understanding of anomalous phenomena) let us follow how von Däniken’s criticism works.

The mystical message of the Fatima event is one example. The Fatima event, often referred to as the Miracle of Fatima or the Apparitions of Fatima, is a series of religious episodes that took place between May and October 1917 in Fatima, a town in Portugal. It involved three young shepherd children: Lúcia dos Santos (age 10) and her cousins Francisco (age 9) and Jacinta Marto (age 7). The events have remained significant within the Roman Catholic Church and have left a lasting religious and cultural impact. On May 13, 1917, the children claimed to have seen an apparition of a “lady brighter than the sun” while they were tending their sheep. The lady, believed by many to be the Virgin Mary, asked them to return on the 13th of each month for the next six months. The children returned as instructed, and each time they reported various conversations with the lady. She revealed to them three secrets, which have since become known as the “Three Secrets of Fatima.” These pertained to a vision of hell, the prediction of the end of World War I and the foretelling of another world war, as well as the attempted assassination of a pope, believed by many to refer to the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981.

On October 13 of that year, a large crowd had gathered since the children had predicted a miracle for that day. Witnesses reported seeing extraordinary solar activity, such as the sun appearing to “dance” or zig-zag in the sky, come close to the earth, or emit multicolored light and radiant colors. Not everyone in the crowd reported seeing the same things, and skeptics argue it was likely a combination of atmospheric and psychological factors. In 1930, the Roman Catholic Church officially declared the apparitions at Fatima “worthy of belief,” allowing devotion to Our Lady of Fatima. Importantly for von Däniken’s argument, the three secrets were kept in the Vatican for many years, with two of them being revealed in the 1940s and the third in the year 2000 by the Vatican. The interpretation of the secrets is carefully deconstructed in his book, The Gods Were Astronauts, and shows a pattern of contradiction and correction on the part of the Church, a pattern that has applied to many of the hundreds of cases of apparitions.

Here’s what the Third Secret, as revealed by the Vatican, entails: the vision was described by Lúcia, one of the children, and it starts with an angel with a flaming sword trying to set the world on fire. The radiance emanating from the Virgin Mary’s right hand, however, extinguishes the flame. The children then saw a persecuted, suffering church involving a bishop, a cross, and a murder.

Specifically, the children saw a bishop dressed in white (whom they took to be the Holy Father), other bishops, priests, men and women religious, and various lay people, both men and women, ascending a steep mountain. At the top of the mountain, there was a rough-hewn cross, and the “bishop in white” prayed for all the faithful at its base. Before reaching the cross, the bishop passed through a big city that was half in ruins, and, trembling with a halting step, afflicted with pain and sorrow, he prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way. After praying at the cross, this bishop was killed, along with other religious figures and lay people, by soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at them.

When the Third Secret was disclosed in 2000, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), who was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, provided an official theological interpretation. He suggested that the Third Secret was a symbolic prophecy, representing the persecution of Christians in the 20th century and the suffering and martyrdom of believers throughout history. Since the messages came from an original apparition taken to be Mary, the mother of God, von Däniken offers three possible explanations for this sighting:

• Looked at historically, there is no Mother of God. She was an invention of the early Church. Many pre-Christian religions already had mother goddesses. So no mother goddess can appear. The apparition must have another source. 

• It is true that the Mother of God is an invention of the early Christian Church but the popes have allowed this invention to become reality. True to the gospel passage ‘… that which you will bind on earth, will be bound in Heaven, and that which you dissolve on earth shall be dissolved in Heaven’ (Matthew 16, 19). An invented Mother of God has become a real Mother of God. 

• Somebody out there is playing with us. The powers of this alien somebody are far beyond any earthly technology (mimicry hypothesis). Just as they are playing with us, they could destroy us at any time. Then, one needs to ask, who is this universal Player? Is there an hierarchical order among Players, which ensures that under-developed civilisations like us are not scrapped? And who or what then is the very highest God behind the Players? Even a civilisation of spirit beings that we can’t really imagine has to have begun sometime. 

From this set of possibilities, von Däniken evaluates each, presumably to select the best one:

Variation a) is really quite sensible. The only problem with it is that apparitions of Mary do exist. Variation b) is the least likely. Why? Because Jesus really would have to have been the ‘only born son of God.’ But every expert with any number of doctorates, who has dealt with this question in our times and knows how the gospels were compiled, will deny the concept of a son of God. And if the Holy Ghost really was the basis of the gospels, as well as the Koran, how could it then declare, via Mohammed, ‘But it is not seemly for Allah to have had a son? This son of God finally would have been sent to humans to liberate them from original sin. Which then lands us back with the contradictions of the Old Testament. Variation c) is possible, but there is no real proof to hand… 

The Sun miracle of Fátima on 13 October 1917 was a real event, triggered by a Mother of God who should not exist, historically speaking, and who was confirmed by a religion that alleges it is the only true one, even though other religions make the same claim. Behind all this there is supposed to be some Holy Ghost, which is at the same time God, and guides the popes—who, in turn, have definitely made erroneous announcements. With all this confusion, variation c) still suits me best. The three popes since 1960 have done everything to make variation c) at least thinkable.  

What all anomalous events have in common, in conclusion, is that they are subjectively reported phenomena, dismissed without deep investigation by scientific fields (out of fear of ridicule), and left either to be ignored or treated with a certain degree of critical speculation by theorists like Erich von Däniken, Graham Hancock, and others. When we wish to investigate anomalous phenomena, we often encounter one of two scenarios: the presence of witnesses with the absence of physical evidence, as in this modern-day event of Fátima, or the absence of witnesses with the presence of physical evidence, as with the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge, and the Moai statues of Easter Island. Regardless of the site or its history, science has resisted speculating on the idea of a non-human influence in these works and events and has opted to ignore or overlook all of them, while denigrating anyone who supplies sustained, alternative explanations. Given that, as von Däniken has noted, more than 40,000 apparitions have been counted in the Christian world alone, and one UFO reporting center counts 147,305 cases just in the US (in addition to cases filed at other UFO reporting venues), one question makes stellar sense.

Are they all tricks of the sun? If so, then the ancients knew a thing or two about the connection between belief and knowledge, and we might be glad that someone has pursued the strands of these and other long-standing mysteries.

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