I didn’t get a chance to tell Erich von Däniken, when he and I were guests together last week on Gene Steinberg’s “The Paracast” radio show, that the first time I read his Chariots of the Gods? it was in Hebrew. This was in the summer of 1978, nine years after Chariots was first published. I was in Israel to teach an overseas course and was visiting a friend of the family, a building contractor named Avi.
“David,” he said, “there’s a book you’ve got to read.”
He said this in a tone that invited no argument. I settled down for one long summer Sabbath afternoon in Avi’s living room, with a Hebrew translation of Chariots of the Gods?
I wanted to tell von Däniken this 40-year-old story—why? Maybe to convey to him the universality of his book’s appeal, that it seemed to a secular thirtysomething Israeli Jew—one of a people who prided themselves on hard-headed, down-to-earth practicality—to be required reading for any thinking man or woman. To reveal something incontrovertibly true and essential for the understanding of our lives and our world. But surely von Däniken knew that already. Chariots was an international bestseller, millions and millions of copies sold, translated into I don’t know how many languages.
It’s not a very good book, in my opinion. Von Däniken, however, is a very nice man, and our debate was conducted with mutual respect and good humor. In large part this was thanks to Gene Steinberg’s skilled shepherding. But even without that, I doubt if there would have been fireworks. I liked von Däniken too much for that.
If you don’t know the central thesis of Chariots—and it’s a measure of the book’s influence that there must be very few who don’t—it is this: that the gods who haunt the myths and legends of human beings all over the world, from Yahveh to Indra to the eerie beings memorialized by the colossi on Easter Island, really existed. They were extraterrestrial visitors, come to instruct our ancestors and to interbreed with them for their (the humans’) benefit. It was their technology, not its feeble and primitive human counterparts, that built the great monuments of Old- and New-World antiquity.
Assume these things to be true, and the “unsolved mysteries of the past” (as the book’s subtitle has it) find their solution. Of course they give way to other, deeper mysteries. Who were those gods from space? What was their interest in our crude simian species, that they poured such energy into cultivating us? The ancient question, What is a human being that Thou rememberest him, a child of humanity that Thou takest him into account? (Psalm 8:5) returns in a new form, more potent than ever.
But this opening of the door, from mystery to fresh mystery, does nothing to reduce the power of von Däniken’s conception. Quite the opposite. It’s within mystery—real or invented—that the human spirit thrives. (“I don’t believe in God,” I told one of my students many years ago. “But I do believe in mystery.”)
Von Däniken is right: the past, and particularly the ancient past, is full of mystery. Perhaps not the kind he imagines. Specialists do know some things that are not common knowledge, that bear on the issues von Däniken raises. In 1976 my friend the Egyptologist Ed Meltzer published an article in Fate magazine, sharply critical of “ancient astronaut” theories. Ed pointed to a classroom exercise that survives from an ancient Egyptian school: students were made to solve the engineering problems of massive construction projects like the pyramids. No ET expertise needed! The Egyptians were quite capable of doing it on their own.
Yet if we’re to be honest, we have to admit there’s so much we don’t know, that so much of our history-writing is the putting together of a jigsaw puzzle in which nine-tenths of the pieces are missing. A connect-the-dots game in which the dots have no numbers, and we’ve got to make our best guess to how the lines among them are to be drawn.
The history textbooks talk as if they’re dealing in certainties, and after many years of teaching history I can understand why they have to. You need to start out with a story, and beginning students can’t possibly learn its basic elements if they’re forced at the same time to confront the reality that the story is a work of fiction—a tale we tell ourselves to make sense of the scattered nubs of data that have come down to us—and a good chunk of it is quite possibly wrong.
Von Däniken is no historical scholar. The clumsiness with which he handles the ancient sources—the “dots” to be connected, the jigsaw pieces to be somehow brought into relation with one another—is often painful to see. It’s amateurish, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and also arrogant, which is. The conventional puzzle-picture of history, which he knocks to the floor so he can put the pieces together in his own way, was the painstaking construction of generations of learned and conscientious men and women, who felt the mystery of our past no less keenly than von Däniken. They may have been wrong, but their ideas need to be reckoned with before discarding them.
Von Däniken is the first person I’ve ever spoken with who believes that the strange ancient text called the “Book of Enoch” was really written by the man whom it claims as its author. This was the patriarch Enoch, Adam’s great-great-great-great-grandson and Noah’s great-grandfather.
By pre-Flood standards Enoch died young, a baby of 365 years, a figure that sounds a lot like the number of days of the solar year. (Odd; the Jews marked time by the lunar year of 354 days. Or did they? One more mystery of antiquity.) But maybe he didn’t die at all.
Genesis 5:24: “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.”
He was not. Hebrew eynennu, which you can also translate as he is not. What does it mean, and how does it differ from and he died, which Genesis says of all the other pre-Flood patriarchs? I’m sure I don’t know. The author of the Book of Enoch knows, however. (Natural enough, if Enoch himself wrote it.) He also knows what walked with God means: not that Enoch lived a godly life (although if he existed he certainly did), but that he was taken on tours of regions inaccessible to ordinary human beings, like the paths of the sun and the moon and the stars. His guides were the angels, or God Himself.
Which von Däniken translates into “modern” language as: the extraterrestrials. What some UFO abductees experienced in modern times—not to mention the “contactees” of the 1950s, who also got guided tours of outer space aboard flying saucers—Enoch experienced in antiquity. And wrote it all down.
But no, Mr. von Däniken! It wasn’t Enoch who wrote the book, even though it’s in first person and even where it doesn’t say “I, Enoch” he’s plainly the speaker. I told von Däniken this on “The Paracast,” although, on the spot I could offer no argument for it beyond the lame “that’s the scholarly consensus.”
I could have added that no one, absolutely no one (i.e., no one with professional training), disagrees with the consensus. But appeal to authority is a poor argument, and “professional training” may be another word for “blinkers.”
I also could have added that, according to the selfsame consensus, the “Book of Enoch” is a collection of five books written mostly in Aramaic, mostly by Jews, the earliest part of the collection dating from around 200 BCE. It belongs to a genre of ancient Jewish and Christian literature called the “apocalyptic literature,” revealing the secrets of the end of time and the inaccessible regions of the world (which included the heavenly bodies). Like most of the apocalypses, it’s written in the name of some Biblical figure who never had anything to do with it but who’s represented as speaking in first person. Enoch was a special favorite of the apocalyptic writers. Given the intriguing mysteriousness of what Genesis says about him, it’s not hard to see why.
Von Däniken: So was he lying?
Those may not be the exact words he used, but they convey his point. If I write, “I, Enoch” and I’m not Enoch, then I am a liar. I protested: I’ve written novels in first person! Just using first person doesn’t mean that I’m really the person I claim to be.
I added that huge chunks of Homer’s Odyssey are written in first person, telling of Odysseus’s seafaring adventures. I ignored that Homer describes the setting in which Odysseus is speaking, clearly signaling that “Odysseus’s” speech is part of the story. My novel, similarly, was labeled Journal of a UFO Investigator: A Novel. “Enoch” in the Book of Enoch gives us to understand that he’s … well, Enoch.
Von Däniken had touched on the problem of what’s known in the profession as “apocalyptic pseudepigraphy.” What psychological state is it that allows me to write “I, Enoch” when I know perfectly well that I’m someone different and much less interesting? A “mystery of the past” indeed, though not the kind of mystery von Däniken likes to explore.
Suppose for a moment von Däniken is right: it really was Enoch who wrote the Book of Enoch. Then he really was given tours of the world above the sky, if not by God or the angels then by the ETs. In fact there’s a long chunk of the book that demonstrates Enoch’s astronomical knowledge. Proof, von Däniken thinks, that Enoch was real, his airborne mentors equally real.
Whereupon I went to my bookshelf and pulled down my copy of James Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, which contains a translation of the Book of Enoch. I began reading to von Däniken from chapter 72:
“The sun is a luminary whose egress is an opening of heaven, which is located in the direction of the east, and whose ingress is another opening of heaven, located in the west. I saw six openings through which the sun rises and six openings through which it sets. The moon also rises and sets through the same openings, and they are guided by the stars. … First there goes out the great light whose name is the sun. … The chariot on which it ascends is driven by the blowing wind.”
There’s a great deal more of this, but the picture’s clear already. Enoch’s “astronomy” is that of the ancient Near East. The earth is a flat disk, capped by the dome that we see as the sky. The sun emerges each morning through the “openings” on the east side of the dome and then sets through corresponding “openings” on the west. It travels on a chariot “driven by the blowing wind.” Not only does Enoch not know what we know today about our place in space. He’s oblivious to what the Greeks already knew, at the time when scholars think the Book of Enoch was written. (In the third century BCE, Eratosthenes knew the earth is a sphere and was able to calculate its size with fair accuracy.)
At which point the bubble, of a real Enoch being given real rides on real spaceships by authentic space “gods,” bursts. We’re back with the “Enoch” of the conventional scholars, a composite of the fantasies of anonymous Bible-reading Jews of the second century BCE and later.
Von Däniken had a response. Surely a lot had been added to the Book of Enoch, he said, by later people who didn’t share the real Enoch’s ET-based knowledge. Which is always possible. But once you make a concession like that, your argument is doomed.
So no, I don’t think there’s a chance that von Däniken’s re-envisioning of human history is correct. But I also think Carl Sagan misses the point when he treats its popularity as a symptom of “the credulousness and despair of our times.” (Quoted by someone calling himself or herself “Existential,” in the “Paracast” comment thread.) My friend Avi the contractor was not a credulous man. Nor do I think he was in a state of despair.
(It’s true, though, that Israel took a bad and long-lasting blow to its national self-confidence in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and it’s possible that the appeal of Chariots of the Gods? to at least some Israelis in the years that followed had something to do with that.)
My own sense is that, however clumsily he went about it, von Däniken opened new vistas to his readers with his genuine insight into the uncertain, constructed nature of our knowledge. “We still know too little about our past to be able to make a definite judgment about it,” he writes on page 69 of my paperback edition of Chariots? (in English this time). Although there are issues on which we can make reasonably definite judgments–that humans didn’t require the aid of “ancient astronauts” to become what we are, for example–there are plenty of others on which we can’t. It’s well to be reminded of that.
“New finds may solve unprecedented mysteries,” von Däniken continues; “the reading of ancient narratives is capable of turning whole worlds of realities upside down.” All we have to do is look at those worlds afresh, be prepared to set aside what they tell us was for what might have been.
In this, there’s something liberating, exhilarating. Avi felt it; millions of others did and still do. I do too. I don’t believe it, but I feel it.
by David Halperin
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