The Pseudoscience Classic That Inspired Eternals… and Many Other Movies

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Warning: Spoilers for the Eternals movie will be found about halfway into this story. We’ll warn you again when you’re about to hit them! 


One of the big reasons Marvel Comics characters continue to resonate throughout the decades is their strong mythic underpinnings. For instance, Thor and the Asgardians are taken wholesale from Norse legend; Ghost Rider has his basis in spectral horsemen folklore gathered by the Brothers Grimm; Black Panther takes cues from Egyptian culture as well as 20th Century Afrofuturism; and what is The Hulk but a play on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th century classic Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But what of cosmic superhero team The Eternals, whose own feature film from Marvel Studios arrived in theaters this week? 

As it happens, one of creative powerhouse Jack Kirby’s final major contributions to the expansive Marvel Universe was riding the wave of a new myth being perpetrated by a German author who began espousing his theories of mankind’s evolution at just the right time. Those new myths would snowball over the ensuing decades into numerous popular sci-fi franchises and a mini-industry of pseudoscience books and documentaries.

Chariots of the Gods? 

Coincidentally arriving the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey depicted a mysterious alien monolith influencing early cave-dwelling hominoid monkey men, author Erich von Däniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? (the question mark was removed in some later editions) sought to impart daring new revelations of how extraterrestrial life had a sphere of influence on man’s development at crucial stages of civilization. 

Much of the book’s hypothesis is based around the assumption that earlier eras of man did not possess the capacity to accomplish the wonders they did, with alien intervention being the only probable explanation. Such achievements we were apparently too stupid to hack by ourselves include the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza, which he suggests would have taken centuries to build with the technology Egyptians had at the time. That’s right, humans could never have thought of using slaves and ramps to haul big stone blocks without a few courteous E.T.s. 

Other miraculous structures that von Däniken considers to be artifacts of evidence to support his theory include England’s Stonehenge, the Moai statues of Easter Island and the numerous Nazca Lines of Peru. The latter large glyphs visible only from the sky are, in his eyes, replicas of alien structures meant to be seen from space as a kind of cosmic “Help Wanted” sign to our previous alien masters. Another tact he takes is to reinterpret ancient paintings or passages of religious texts through the prism of depicting aliens, even when far more grounded explanations already exist from learned archaeologists. 

Chariots of the Gods? sought to impart daring new revelations of how extraterrestrial life had a sphere of influence on man’s development at crucial stages of civilization. 

Here is a prime example of von Däniken’s specious reasoning from the book, which even includes the word “eternal”: 

“Could it be that God was an extra-terrestrial? What do we mean when we say that heaven is in the clouds? From Jesus Christ to Elvis Presley, every culture tells us of high-flying bird men who zoom around the world creating magnificent works of art and choosing willing followers to share in the eternal glory from beyond the stars. Can all these related phenomena merely be dismissed as coincidence?” 

Who Is Erich von Däniken, Really? 

Of course the fact that all of this is easily disproved nonsense did not stop Chariots of the Gods? from becoming a runaway bestseller, with it and von Däniken’s other texts on the subject having sold over 70 million copies to date. This was aided somewhat by the popularity of the occult and paranormal within the counterculture at the time, also evidenced by mystic tomes like Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan. But what sort of scientific credentials did von Däniken amass to glean all these remarkable insights? None, actually. 

In reality Erich von Däniken was a Swiss hotelier and con artist who had been imprisoned for embezzlement before publication of his first book, and then once again with the added charges of fraud and forgery afterwards for falsifying bank records so he could take out huge loans and live like King Gilgamesh. When confronted about the many factual errors in his works the author would become irate and highly defensive, as he does in the book’s own introduction. 

The fact is even some of the nuttiest theories in Chariots of the Gods? are not even his, with ideas “borrowed” from scientists like Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii as well as French author Robert Charroux. Additionally, it’s been alleged that some of the theories in the book may have been straight up plagiarized from a 1960 fantasy book called The Morning of the Magicians, which itself was influenced by the Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft. 

In August of 1974 Playboy contacted famed astronomer Sagan before interviewing von Däniken, and he made his views of the Chariots author quite plain: 

“The kindest thing I can say about von Däniken is that he ignores the science of archeology. Every time he sees something he can’t understand, he attributes it to extraterrestrial intelligence, and since he understands almost nothing, he sees evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence all over the planet.” 

In 2003 von Däniken opened a theme park in Switzerland called Mystery Park that showcased different “mysteries of the world” over seven giant pavilions, including Nazca, Giza and Stonehenge. Not surprisingly, the park drew controversy for promoting ideas of ancient aliens, and ultimately failed, though a different company took over and began reopening it in the summers as Jungfrau Park. 

The Eternals Connection 

It was obvious from the publication of artist and writer Jack Kirby’s first issue of The Eternals in July of 1976 that he had Chariots of the Gods? on the brain. Ideas about the seeding of humanity by extraterrestrials play a central part in the story of the god-like Celestials creating Eternals and their centuries-long battle against the monstrous Deviants, all drawn in Kirby’s increasingly cubist style. According to Ronin Ro’s Marvel history book Tales to Astonish, Marvel wanted to title the series Return of the Gods in the same font as von Däniken’s book. Luckily the legal department stepped in, and Eternals it was. Still, the second issue does say right on the cover, “More fantastic than Chariots of the Gods!” 

Only lasting for 19 issues and one annual, Kirby’s run on the book focused on the title group of heroes who evolved at the same time as humans but were gifted with glorious powers by the Celestials, and were then subsequently worshipped as gods throughout the eons. There is even a character who debuted in issue #13 named after the ancient Sumerian epic poem “Gilgamesh,” about a posthumously deified Mesopotamian king. In the original text Gilgamesh was part-god/part-man who at one point rose up in the sky in a “space chariot” and described the Earth in remarkably accurate detail… at least according to von Däniken. 

Here is a quote from Kirby in the “Eternal Utterings” afterword to that inaugural issue, which is full of references to the sunken city of Lemuria, Incan symbology, and Ships of the Gods: 

“Despite the fact that I’ve contrived my own version of those momentous confrontations of prehistory, I take them from the de facto questions of today. What did happen in those remote days of men’s early struggle for civilized status? What is the true meaning of the myths which shared a global similarity among diverse peoples? Did beings of an extra terrestrial nature touch down among us and influence our lives to this present day? And then, the all-important question of the lot – are these beings in some cosmic orbit which will lead them back to us someday?”

Did beings of an extra terrestrial nature touch down among us and influence our lives to this present day? – Jack Kirby

Warning: Here come those spoilers for the Eternals movie… 

Director Chloé Zhao’s new $200 million dollar film version of Eternals is no different from its comic book source material in that the engine driving the narrative is ancient aliens theory. In the movie the Eternals team of varied superpowers consists of matter-manipulating Sersi (Gemma Chan), high-flying laser-eyed Ikaris (Richard Madden), energy-blasting Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), illusionist Sprite (Lia McHugh), technologist Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), way-fast Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), mind-controlling Druig (Barry Keoghan), super-strong Gilgamesh (Don Lee), quick-healer Ajak (Salma Hayek), and deadly swordswoman Thena (Angelina Jolie). They are named after many legends throughout history because they themselves inspired those tales. 

Midway through the film Sersi learns that all the Eternals are merely synthetic beings/robots created by the Celestials to advance humanity over millennia in order to feed the new Celestial named Tiamut that is growing from within the Earth’s core. The Deviants were also contrived by the Celestials to kill off the dinosaurs so that the more intelligent man could emerge and dominate the planet. The Eternals’ main duty is to prevent the Deviants from killing Tiamut before he emerges from the Earth, which will result in killing all life on the planet. 

So, essentially, our heroes are actually robots made to look like humans by giant interstellar beings who look like Everest-sized refrigerators with arms and are using Earth as their personal incubator. The Eternals don’t take kindly to this new intel, having grown fond of humanity and all they’ve accomplished, including the felling of the Titan Thanos. They set out to stop the emergence of Tiamut despite obstacles from within their own ranks. 

Interspersed amid the modern-day story are glimpses of some of the team’s handiwork throughout the centuries, including the advancements of ancient Babylon and the warring culture of the Aztecs. The character of Phastos is particularly crucial, as he frequently wants to accelerate humanity’s development with building and agriculture, as when he yearns to give the Babylonians engine-powered farming equipment but must settle for a simple plow. It seems a light touch is preferable when giving humans new ideas, or we’ll all simply destroy each other… which would defeat the purpose. 

All this is very heady material for a blockbuster, and whether its ensemble cast of immortal enhanced robots with superpowers can connect to a wide audience is yet to be seen. The one thing we do know is Eternals is nowhere near alone when it comes to incorporating ancient aliens stuff within a pop framework. 

End of Eternals movie spoilers!


Other Films, More Chariots 

Stargate 

Many movies have carried forth the ancient alien theme, with the most prominent that comes to mind being Roland Emmerich’s 1994 sci-fi epic Stargate. It follows James Spader as a modern-day scientist named Dr. Daniel Jackson who, through special stones, is able to open a wormhole gateway to another planet called Abydos. Similar in desert terrain and language to ancient Egypt, Jackson learns that the alien god Ra (Jaye Davidson) had used the Stargate to travel to Earth centuries ago to possess bodies and enslave humans in order to mine the mineral that powers his technology. 

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 

Working under some level of protest alongside story crafter George Lucas, Steven Spielberg directed 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to the chagrin of many moviegoers. Unlike previous Jones adventures, which were based around religious artifacts, this one brought extraterrestrials into the picture. Or, as they’re referred to in the film, “inter-dimensional beings.” Using a crystal skull with telepathic powers unearthed from Area 51, Jones and his Russian adversaries seek to uncover the fabled city of Akator, in real life a debunked German myth of a kind of El Dorado-style city of gold near the Amazon. Along the way there are references to the Nazca Lines and aliens who came to Earth centuries ago as space archaeologists. 

Prometheus 

A semi-prequel to the first Alien movie, Ridley Scott’s 2012 Prometheus was a massive budget sci-fi horror exploration of Chariots of the Gods? themes, including the idea that alien beings brought their own DNA into play during the early cycles of life’s evolution on Earth, resulting in the human race. The lead archaeologist characters Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway draw questionable clues to the origin of man through specific symbols in primitive artworks and hieroglyphs from throughout time that point to a specific solar system. Armed with the trillion-dollar title spaceship (named after the Greek god who gave man the gift of fire) that’s packed with advanced equipment and scientists of varying degrees of intelligence, they set out across the stars to discover the beings (nicknamed Engineers) who created us. Take that, Charles Darwin! Fun side fact: The production company behind the Ancient Aliens TV show formed in 1999 is called Prometheus Entertainment. 

Quatermass and the Pit 

Pre-dating von Däniken’s book is the 1958 BBC TV serial Quatermass and the Pit, which was remade as a feature by Hammer Studios in 1967. Written by Nigel Kneale, it sees the title rocket scientist and professor Bernard Quatermass stumble upon an alien ship in a London Underground station. As he investigates further, Quatermass learns the aliens inside had long ago genetically modified humans to gift a select few of them with psychic powers in order to breed a new race of people. Related: The BBC’s 13th season episode of Doctor Who, “Pyramids of Mars,” found Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor battling an Egyptian god named Sutekh, who is really a member of an alien race called the Osirians who use robot henchmen dressed as mummies. 

The X-Files 

Chris Carter’s Fox series The X-Files dealt with these alien astronaut notions many times, as in a trilogy of Season 6 episodes starting with “Biogenesis” and revolving around a large metallic alien artifact that washes up on the Ivory Coast and which may be a clue to the fringe theory of panspermia, namely that aliens created life on Earth. 

John Carpenter’s The Thing

Perhaps the best reference to von Däniken came in John Carpenter’s classic 1982 horror remake The Thing, in which Palmer (David Clennon) schools Childs (Keith David) about the real deal behind alien visitations: 

Palmer:

Childs, happens all the time, man. They’re falling out of the skies like flies. Government knows all about it, right, Mac?

Childs:

You believe any of this voodoo bullsh*t, Blair?

Palmer:

Childs, Childs… Chariots of the Gods, man. They practically own South America. I mean, they taught the Incas everything they know.

A Mini Alien Industry 

In 1970 von Däniken’s pontificating was taken to the next level of public awareness with the release of the incredibly popular documentary feature Chariots of the Gods. Produced in Germany and inexplicably nominated for an Academy Award after becoming the ninth highest grossing film of 1970, the film is a fairly bland 90 minutes of stock footage covering various locales undermined by an even more boring narrator. 

It was followed in 1972 by a shorter version edited for ABC television titled In Search of Ancient Astronauts and another doc in 1973 titled In Search of Ancient Mysteries, both narrated by Twilight Zone guru Rod Serling. In Ancient Astronauts Serling paints a picture of von Däniken as adventurous investigator on horseback, far different than what we actually know to be true: 

“Erich von Däniken, a German professor possessed of the mind of a scientist and the imagination of a romantic, wrote a book called Chariots of the Gods. He stated that sometime in the distant past mankind was visited by intelligent beings from outer space. What in olden times might have been heresy is today intriguing speculation. Von Däniken travelled to all corners of the world gathering evidence in support of his theory… or is it a theory? Judge for yourself.” 

In 1970 von Däniken’s pontificating was taken to the next level of public awareness with the release of the incredibly popular documentary feature Chariots of the Gods.

With that level of mythmaking, it’s hard to imagine how these baseless theories wouldn’t capture the public imagination, especially in an era where you couldn’t simply click over to Google and discover how silly they really are. These TV specials eventually grew into the popular infotainment series In Search of… hosted by Leonard Nimoy, which explored various facets of the paranormal and other mysterious phenomena. (That series was revived in 2002 and again in 2018 with host Zachary Quinto.) But the show’s effect on pop culture has nothing on a more recent program. 

When discussing History Channel’s long-running series Ancient Aliens, it’s hard not to think of the hilarious scene in Anchorman 2 when Liam Neeson leads a brigade of historical soldiers representing History Channel, including the ghost of Stonewall Jackson and a Minotaur. James Marsden’s TV reporter Jack Lime cries out, “The minotaur isn’t even history. He’s mythology!” 

One could say the exact same thing about ancient alien theories: that they are modern day myths being packaged as fact by infotainment vendors like A&E’s History Channel, which has run the “reality” program Ancient Aliens for 17 seasons with no sign of slowing. 

The show’s parade of questionable sources (including human meme Giorgio A. Tsoukalos of the world’s most ridiculous hairdo) has pervaded the popular imagination to such an extent that a 2018 study executed at Chapman University indicates that 41 percent of American adults believe that extraterrestrials have meddled in humanity’s formative past. This is a sad development indicative of the nefarious strain of anti-intellectualism that has reared an ever-larger head in discourse as the age of social media misinformation dominates the landscape. 

While Marvel’s Eternals is pure entertainment and should not be lumped in with false idol “educational” shows like Ancient Aliens, it will be interesting to see what kind of intelligent discourse it generates on the topic, both in the middle school lunchroom and beyond.

For even more on the new Marvel movie, check out our Eternals ending explained, dig in on the Eternals post credits scene, and also contemplate the Eternals mid credits scene with that crazy cameo.



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