Over 40 years ago, a Swiss hotel manager produced a book that was to launch him as a bestselling author and turn an obscure and eccentric theory into a widely discussed, if unorthodox, take on human prehistory. Erich von Däniken’s book Chariots of the Gods argued that the gods of human religion were not supernatural beings from a world of spirit, but visiting aliens from advanced extraterrestrial cultures (see FT169:30–37 and passim).
The evidence cited was wide-ranging. Von Däniken (below) identified several ancient artefacts and drawings as models and images of astronauts. He claimed mysterious lines in the deserts of South America were extraterrestrial airports and he also quoted from religious scriptures.
At first glance, the opening chapter of the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel certainly seems to give credence to the theory. It contains a curious and enigmatic description of a close encounter between the prophet Ezekiel and what was described as “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord”. 
I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north, an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The centre of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man… As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces.
This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like chrysolite, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not turn about as the creatures went. Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.
When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When the creatures moved, they also moved; when the creatures stood still, they also stood still; and when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. 
The mainstream explanation, to be found in Jewish and Christian teaching, is that Ezekiel’s vision is “perhaps the closest anyone comes in the Hebrew Bible to offering a description of God”.  But if, in fact, Ezekiel had seen a flying saucer and its extraterrestrial crew, then the ‘God was an alien’ hypotheses starts stacking up.
And the Ezekiel vision is by no means unique. Other passages in the Bible can be interpreted in a similar manner. What about the Prophet Elijah’s sudden ascent to the heavens, leaving behind just his clothes: “As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” Could this have been an early alien abduction?
In a similar vein, we might ask what was the Star of Bethlehem that led the Wise Men to the baby Jesus? (See panel, p36) Or the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites? Or the strange object witnessed by the prophet Zechariah, just after he had been shown what the Bible account describes as a “gold lamp stand with a bowl at the top with seven lights on it and seven channels to the lights”? 
“I looked again – and there before me was a flying scroll… thirty feet long and fifteen feet wide.” (9 x 4.6m) 
Contemporary descriptions of alien craft often describe them as cigar-shaped. The prophet, being unfamiliar with cigars, chose a simile closer to his own experience to describe whatever it was he saw.
VISHNU'S FLYING CHARIOTS
Turning from the Judæo-Christian tradition to that of the Hindu scriptures: The Bhagavata-Purana, Mahabharata and Ramayana, the holy books of epics and legends, contain multiple references to flying objects of various shapes:
Dhruva saw a very beautiful chariot descending from the sky that illumined him and the ten directions as if the full moon itself was appearing. There he then saw two beautiful demigods in it with four arms, a blackish skin, being quite young and with eyes reddish like a lotus flower, holding clubs, attractively decorated with helmets, bracelets, necklaces and earrings.
Not only did Dhruva witness the chariot, he was invited aboard to take a ride through space, much in the manner of later UFO contactees.
As the associates of the creator of this entire universe, of the Godhead… have we approached you to take you with us to where the Lord resides. The position of Vishnu, so difficult to reach that not even the greatest of enlightenment can achieve it, has been conquered by you. Come and simply see the supreme abode which the moon, the sun, the other planets and the stars circumambulate to the right. Never ever was this achieved by your forefathers or even others, O dear one; come and live there in that supreme position of Lord Vishnu who is so worshippable for the inhabitants of the universe. O immortal soul, you are worthy to board this unique heavenly chariot that was sent to you by the Praised One, the head of all living beings. 
There is even a collective term for these airborne vehicles of the Hindu tradition – be they described as thrones, chariots or even carpets. They are the Vimana (see FT267:53). And those that travelled across time and space, perhaps originating from other star systems, are known as the Devas – equivalent, some would argue, to the angels of the three monotheistic faiths, Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
Stories which can be interpreted as relating to visitations by creatures of superior intelligence to Earth’s more primitive inhabitants are widespread and found in many cultures. Ancient Chinese writings tell of rulers of greater wisdom and knowledge who could travel by flying. Tibetan accounts make mention of kings coming from the stars. Records have survived, it is claimed, from the Sumerians and the Egyptian Pharaohs that fit equally well with the notion of alien visitations. Whether the vehicles are described as “like flying pearls”, as in Tibetan sources, or as “flying fire-breathing dragons”, to use Chinese terminology, perhaps there is a common thread linking all the descriptions.
Despite their belief in the Jinn, a whole race of spirits of fire who inhabit the Earth, Muslims find no direct references to possible UFO visitations in the Qur’an. However, they share and revere the Biblical stories known to Christians and Jews; and the possibility of the existence of other creatures in other parts of the Universe is seemingly endorsed in scripture. God holds the option to gather all the creatures of the Universe together, says the Qur’an: “One of His signs is the creation of the Heavens and the Earth and what He has spread forth in both of them of living beings; and when He pleases He is all-powerful to gather them together.” 
Thus, an alien encounter on Earth is not theologically impossible – and neither is space travel ruled out: “O ye assembly of Jinn and men! If it be you can pass beyond the regions of the heavens and the Earth, pass ye! Not without authority will ye be able to pass! Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?” 
But as a warning to any future Muslim astronauts, the Qur’an warns: “Neither on Earth nor in Heaven shall you be beyond reach: nor have you any guardian or helper besides Allah.” 
Von Däniken was not the only modern-day populariser of the theory that the Gods of old were space travellers. There have been several others who have gone on to put a whole additional spin on the theory.
ELOHIM, NEPHILIM ET AL
One widely read writer on such topics was the late Zecharia Sitchin (see next issue’s Necrolog for his obituary), whose followers believe Earth has been visited by a race of extraterrestrials from a planet called Nibiru (or Planet X
), whose orbit, he claimed, lies beyond that of Neptune, and comes closest to Earth every 3,000 years, bringing with it natural disasters, such as the Great Flood related in Genesis.
Sitchin based his ideas, he says, on his study of Mesopotamian iconography and symbology. In his book The 12th Planet, he claimed that this unacknowledged planet was known in ancient times and was the home of the Anunnaki, an advanced human-like people who bred modern Homo sapiens through genetic engineering in order to produce a race of slaves.
In his last published work,  Sitchin returned to the Book of Genesis: “The sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose… The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also afterward – when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” 
Sitchin speculates that Noah, who with his family survived the flood, might have been one of these heroes of old. If so, and if we are all descended from him, then we all have alien DNA in our make-up!
Other believers in the idea that the gods have left a genetic imprint in the human race include the followers of Rael (see FT142:6; 168:6). They believe the extraterrestrials responsible for designing human beings were the Elohim, who, when returning to check up on their creations, were mistaken for angels or gods. Rael, whose original name was Claude Vorilhon, is an ex-racing driver who leads a religion – officially recognised in the USA – which claims to be the largest UFO religion in the world. He tells of having a dramatic encounter with a humanoid being from another planet at a volcano park in the centre of France:
This extraterrestrial gave him a new detailed explanation of our origins and information on how to organise our future. Rael accepted the mission given to him, to inform humanity of this revolutionary message and to prepare the population to welcome their Creators, the Elohim.
In every culture on Earth, a messenger is expected, whether it is the Maitreya of the Buddhists, the Messiah of the Jews, the Paraclete of the Christians, or any other name that has been given by the many tribes around the world. This expected messenger, like all the previous ones, isn’t supposed to please everyone, but to state what our Creators are expecting from us. This is what Rael has been doing for more than 30 years. 
The Raelian church is probably best known to the outside world for its desire to restore the swastika as a religious, rather than political, symbol, its claims about alien and human cloning and its liberal teachings on sexuality. One of the FAQs on its website asks: “I read in the papers that you organise orgies, is this true?”
Despite the common thread – the idea that the human race was visited in ancient history by space-travellers – the various popular versions differ enormously. The contrast between, for instance, the work of Robert Temple and David Icke could not be greater.
Temple’s book The Sirius Mystery was published in 1975 and explores the claim that the Dogon people of Mali have a tradition that Earth was once visited by travellers from the star system of Sirius. These alien visitors brought the human race higher knowledge, and the legend explains the Dogon interest in, and seemingly advanced knowledge of, astronomy (see FT140:30–31). While Temple’s work has been challenged, his claims were relatively cautious ones and have not spawned any form of religious movement.
By contrast, David Icke, the former professional goalkeeper and television presenter who in 1991 told Terry Wogan that he was the Son of God, has become synonymous with the extreme end of extraterrestrial theology. Here, beliefs about alien visitors suggest that they are not necessarily benign. Living underground, says Icke, are communities of shape-shifting reptiles who are a malign force in the world and manipulate the minds of the mass of the human population via world leaders under their control. (See FT129:30–31)
Predating Rael, Sitchin, Icke, von Däniken and others was George King, founder of the Aetherius Society. The then-taxi driver’s contact with alien life-forms can be dated precisely to a day early in 1954, when out of the blue he heard the command, “Prepare yourself. You are to become the Voice of the Interplanetary Parliament.” From that day until his death in 1997 (obit. FT104:49), King became the channel by which the alien intelligence identified as ‘Mars Sector 6’ communicated with the human race.
Today, The Aetherius Society, which he founded, is a worldwide organisation with an avowedly altruistic agenda whose aim is to help heal and uplift humanity through spiritual action. As the Society’s literature puts it:
Our world is accelerating into a world of selfishness and materialistic hedonism causing an increase in violence and terrorism around the world and a rapid depletion of Earth’s resources. The solution is spiritual action, true dedicated tireless spiritual action for the many. The Cosmic Masters, our spiritual elders from other worlds, have come again to help us in our time of need. They come now to you, with compassion and desire to help. They come with great hope, offering mystical tools of white magic that can give you
the spiritual power available only to advanced adepts centuries ago. 
ACCORDING TO THE EVIDENCE
So, if the idea that contact with extraterrestrial beings explains many ancient and modern religious movements is widely believed in some quarters, how plausible an explanation is it? Have the prophets and seers who have reported what sound like alien encounters really seen alien life forms, or have they and their followers misinterpreted experiences – perhaps hallucinations – of a more mundane kind?
Hard, verifiable evidence is scarce. Sitchin challenged scientists to look for alien DNA in the 4,500-year-old bones of Queen Puabi of Ur. She was described as a goddess, he claimed, and might be close enough in ancestry to the original space-travellers for their genetic input to be identifiable. But even he accepted this might be a long shot and emphasised the might be in his suggestion.
As for von Däniken – since his claims were first published, several of the pieces of his supposed evidence have been specifically debunked. His own background, which includes a spell in a Swiss jail for fraud, has been exposed and his credentials as a scholar challenged.
What is noticeable from his own writing is that while von Däniken makes much of supposed scientific evidence, he has little grasp of the science himself. For instance, he presents as an amazing and significant fact that the area of the base of the Pyramid of Cheops divided by twice its height gives us the figure Pi: 3.14159.
“Here our slippery trickster has made a claim which is easy enough to understand, but its refutation requires a higher level of mathematical sophistication, which is all the better for letting the deception go unnoticed!” wrote Robert Sheaffer in his essay “Science or Charlatanism?” 
Other pieces of ‘evidence’ adduced by von Däniken have come under similar attack. Famously, he claimed that a carving in Palenque, Mexico, showed an ‘ancient astronaut’ seated in a spacecraft – the smoking gun that proved the Maya, like ancient cultures all over the world, had been visited by gods from outer space. In 1977, the BBC’s Horizon programme broadcast an episode called the “The Case of the Ancient Astronauts”, in which von Däniken’s theories were subjected to critical scrutiny. The experts weren’t impressed: “Archæologist and Mayan expert Dr Ian Graham explained his view of the figure on the Palenque Stone. ‘Well I certainly don’t see any need to regard him as a spaceman,’ he said. ‘I don’t see any oxygen tubes. I see a very characteristically drawn Maya face.’” The carving showed not an alien visitor, but a celebrated Palenque ruler called Pakal.
Even the suggestion that there is an ancient airport in the South American desert has proved to be misguided, according to the sceptics. The precise purpose of these and other large-scale ‘lines’ remains mysterious, but they can be explained as the artwork of the Nazca people. “The ‘lines’ include not only lines and geometric shapes, but also depictions of animals and plants in stylised forms. As the online Skeptic’s Dictionary entry points out:
If Nazca was an alien airfield, it must have been a very confusing airfield, consisting as it does of giant lizards, spiders, monkeys, llamas, dogs, hummingbirds, etc., not to mention the zigzagging and crisscrossing lines and geometric designs. It was very considerate of the aliens to depict plants and animals of interest to the locals, even though it must have meant that navigation would be more difficult than a straight runway or a large clearing. Also, the airport must have been a very busy place, needing 37 miles [60km] of runway to handle all the traffic. However, it is unlikely spacecraft could have landed in the area without disturbing some of the artwork or the soil. There is no evidence of such disturbance. 
A point left unaddressed by the sceptics, though, is why a pre-industrial people, with no ability to get airborne, would have create artworks which can only be appreciated from the air.
Whichever side of the debate one is on, there is no disputing the fact that all the vivid images from scriptures and ancient writings which have in modern times been identified as descriptions of aliens, have alternative if less romantic interpretations.
For instance, the strange wheels and multi-faced humanoids described by Ezekiel have been linked to the sculptures of guardian spirits set up by the Babylonians at the gates to their palaces which Ezekiel, as an exile in Babylon, would have seen.
In an era in which rapidly advancing technology has become widespread and science fiction more popular than ever, ancient writings attract new interpretations. Descriptions of extraordinary events, which began life as poetry, fantasy or symbolism, have attracted new literalist meanings in an age when space travel is possible and extraterrestrial life somewhere in the Universe accepted as plausible.
There is no indisputable evidence that any of our ancestors could fly, or had ever met a race of people who had conquered flight. Yet, if we move away from the literal interpretations of von Däniken, we would have to conclude that, long before the invention of aircraft, there was nothing to stop ancient cultures from imagining the possibility of flight, in much the same way that we today imagine the possibility of time-travel.
Some scientists have hypothesised that we may indeed have regular contact with alien life forms, but not as spacecraft and little green men. They come to Earth as space dust bringing new viruses and epidemics. Far from bringing genetic benefits capable of turning grunting primitives into Mozarts and Shakespeares, our space visitors bring us new strains of flu and plague.
Unless of course there is evidence, but it is being suppressed. In 1962, did a certain Dr Tsum Um Nui really succeed in translating the mysterious 12,000-year-old inscription on the Dropa or Dzopa disc from Tibet and present it for publication? Did it confirm the story that the writers of the inscription were aliens stranded on Earth when their spacecraft crashed? Was the publication of the doctor’s paper ruthlessly suppressed by the academic hierarchy? Was the whole Dropa story merely satire and fiction, as was later claimed in this magazine? (See FT75:57; 109:39.)
Or did the shape-shifting reptiles order the author to confess to a hoax in order to cover up a disturbing truth?
1 Ezekiel, ch1, v28 (all quotations from New International Version).
2 Ezekiel, ch1.
3 John Bowker: The Complete Bible Handbook, Dorling Kindersley, 1998, p218.
4 2 Kings, ch2, v11.
5 Zechariah, ch4, v2.
6 Zechariah, ch5, vv1–2.
7 Bhagavata Purana, bk 4, ch12.
8 Surah 42, v29.
9 Surah 55, vv33–34.
10 Surah 29, v22.
11 There Were Giants Upon the Earth, Bear and Company, Rochester, Vermont, 2009.
12 Genesis, ch6, vv2–5.
15 NICAP UFO Investigator, Oct/Nov 1974.
16 'Nazca Lines', The Skeptic's Dictionary.
THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM - PLANETARY CONJUNCTION, SUPERNOVA OR UFO?
Maybe the Star of Bethlehem Wasn’t a star at all – Neil Young
According to St Matthew’s account in the Bible, sometime after Jesus was born, ‘wise men’ came from the east looking for the baby, bringing with them gifts of gold, frankinsense and myrhh. Their only navigational aid was a star, which eventually “came and stood over where the young child was”.
The wise men, it is generally believed, were Persian astrologers known as Magi. So is it possible that the star was not a conspicuous object in the night sky at all – Matthew doesn’t say it was particularly big or bright – but an astrological deduction?
Few people find that a satisfying explanation. Almost since the beginning of Christianity, scholars have been looking for an astronomical explanation. The third-century theologian Origen speculated that the star might have been a comet. It is a theory with which one modern astronomer agrees. The eminent mathematician and astronomer Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe cites independent astronomical evidence to support this theory:
“Chinese astronomers of the Han Dynasty recorded the appearance of a comet in the spring of the year 5 BC. It was a spectacular comet with a very long tail and it lasted for 70 days.
“The comet explanation is particularly compelling if one accepts at face value the story that the ‘star’ stood still over a particular place.
“There is only one type of astronomical object that can appear to stand over a particular spot, and that is a comet. A long upward-pointing comet tail can give the impression of its head pointing to a place – the stable where Christ was born.”
Four hundred years ago, Johannes Kepler, the German astronomer who produced much key early work on the movement of planets, suggested an alternative theory. The star, he suggested, was the notable conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. More recently, astronomer Dr David Hughes identified three such alignments during 7 BC – the year that many scholars believe to be that of Jesus’s birth. Other suggestions have included a double eclipse of Jupiter by the Moon and a supernova (two of which appear to have occurred in 4 and 5 BC.
The problem with all conventional explanations, even that of a comet, is that the Bible is clear: the star did not travel east-west across the sky with the Earth’s rotation, but north-south. The wise men followed it from Jerusalem, where they met Herod, to Bethlehem, due south. So, the conclusion drawn by some Christians is that the Star of Bethlehem cannot be naturally explained by science.
Sceptics, of course, find the simplest solution to be that Matthew invented the Star of Bethlehem (it doesn’t figure in Luke’s account of the nativity) – Martin Gardner, for instance, wrote that in his “not-so-humble opinion, the story of the Star is pure myth, similar to many ancient legends about the miraculous appearance of a star to herald a great event, such as the birth of Cæsar, Pythagoras, Krishna… and other famous persons and deities.” 
Unless, of course, it was something else, literally out of this world. What lights are reported as moving across the sky, zig-zagging in various directions, stopping and then being seen to hover close to the ground? Some writers have suggested that the Star might have been a piloted extraterrestrial craft; some have even posited that the angelic visitation to the shepherds – in which “the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” (Luke 2:9) – complete, as it is, with dazzlingly bright lights – describes a close encounter of a kind often described by contemporary witnesses.