Part 2: The Return of the Ancient Astronaut.
The space jockey was doubtless one of those things that derived much of its fascination from lack of explanation – a tantalizing detail of a larger picture that was left to the tentative elaboration of the viewer’s imagination. But the idea that something might be best left a mystery is pretty much an anathema in today’s Hollywood landscape, where everything that once connected with audiences has to be revisited, revived, or rebooted in some fashion or another. Hollywood seems to have migrated to a condition similar to Greek tragedy, in so far as originality is concerned: novel or original scenarios are eclipsed by the seasonal retelling or variation of existing myths. Hence, while many are baffled by the need to retell Spiderman’s origin story again this summer, with Sam Raimi’s version so fresh in people’s minds, this detail would seem natural enough to an Aeschylus, though much else in the syntax of Spiderman might baffle him.
It’s not surprizing then that an aging Ridley Scott should be returning in the summer of the alleged end of the world to the mythos that made his name in the very different Hollywood of the late 70s. It also seems very apt, in the context of the impending folklore apocalypse, that Prometheus should attempt to revive another slumbering cultural spectre with a particular resonance to the 70s: the ancient astronaut. The ancient astronaut idea basically posits that humankind experienced some kind of contact with an advanced extraterrestrial species in the distant past, and some garbled memory of this paleocontact experience is preserved in ancient myths, artworks, and feats of engineering scattered across the globe. The full extent of extra-terrestrial interference varies according to different versions – in some the aliens are merely responsible for educating and civilising the human race; in others, as in Prometheus, human beings are themselves a product of direct alien genetic tampering.
ARE WE MARTIANS?: The origin of the species according to Quatermass and the Pit.
The ancient astronaut theory has very complex and tangled roots in the borderland between fact-based speculation and weird speculative fiction. At heart, it seeks to resolve a genuine historical and anthropological enigma: the apparent global ubiquity of myths of otherworldly intervention in human affairs. It remains a conundrum that, human vanity notwithstanding, ancient cultures show a marked reluctance to claim the crowning achievements of human nature as their own. In a variety of myths, the fruits of higher civilisation – language, writing, engineering, ethics, astronomy, and so on – are always envisioned not as hard-won human achievements, but rather as the “fire of the gods”, stolen for man, as in the myth of Prometheus, or given freely by some otherworldly benefactor. Nevertheless, some of the most prominent early expressions of the ancient astronaut thesis occur in a fictional context. A variation of the idea is expressed in the Cthulhu Mythos of HP Lovecraft, and featured most prominently in At the Mountains of Madness. (Some sceptics have claimed that Lovecraft’s fiction is the progenitor of all paleocontact theory, an excessive, but not entirely unwarranted notion, considering Lovecraft’s influence on The Morning of the Magicians, and the strange prominence given in his art to ancient, Cyclopean architecture.) Nigel Kneale’s brilliant 1958 BBC television serial Quatermass and the Pit hinged on the notion that the human race was a product of genetic manipulation carried out in pre-history by a race of intelligent, locust-like aliens hailing from the then habitable Mars. Viewers in the conservative Britain of the day must have been too entertained to notice the casual blasphemy implied by such a scenario.
Finally, it is worth noting that the most iconic of all sci-fi films, 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a classic paleocontact narrative, a fact sometimes obscured by Kubrick’s opaque treatment of higher alien intelligence. Apparently, Kubrick and Clarke had initially envisioned the intervention of far more prototypical humanoid ETs during the infamous Dawn of Man sequence. In his book The Cosmic Connection, Cark Sagan claims that he advised the pair against such an obvious anthropomorphic visualisation, arguing instead that they should imply or suggest alien superintelligence rather than depict it directly. However it ultimately came about, Kubrick arrived at a masterstroke, and the Monolith – the buzzing, transcendent object at the beginning and culmination of man’s cosmic journey – remains one of the simplest and most richly suggestive mythic images in contemporary pop culture.
Meanwhile, a small number of writers in the far fringes of professional scholarship were positing ancient astronaut intervention as a legitimate historical possibility. The first of these was probably Charles Fort, who suggested in a famous aside from the Book of the Damned that human beings might be little more than the livestock of an advanced alien race: “I think we’re property.” The first fully realized expression of the meme occurred in Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s classic surrealist/Fortean manifesto Le matin des magiciens (The Morning of the Magicians, 1960). While these writers operated strictly outside the cultural mainstream, some variant of this kind of thinking has occasionally crept into the world of respectable science. During the 70s, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule (a discovery facilitated, accorded to popular legend, by the ingestion of LSD), speculated that intelligent life may have been artificially dispersed across the universe via advanced space travel technology in a process which he called “Directed Panspermia”. The Austrian astrophysicist Thomas Gold proposed a theory that would doubtless have appealed to the cosmic misanthropy of HP Lovecraft: according the “garbage theory”, life on planet earth may have evolved accidentally from a pile of waste dumped here by advanced extraterrestrials. Those of us of slovenly habits are well aware of the potential of waste to breed Lovecraftian colonies, particularly during the warmer months.
It was, however, the work of Erich von Daniken that really established the ancient astronaut thesis as a bona fide pop culture phenomenon and contemporary folk mythology. It didn’t matter that von Daniken was a dubious character who would eventually be convicted for several crimes including theft and fraud, or that he had plagiarised most of his ideas from Morning of the Magicians, much less that his scholarship was negligible and his writing crude and overbearing. He had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, with a killer title: CHARIOTS OF THE GODS?, released the same year that Kubrick’s revelatory Monolith was buzzing in movie-theatres, was a massive bestseller that captured the public imagination. Like 2001, Chariots of the Gods? suggested a visionary activation of the collective ancestral memory banks, a sense whereby the true nature of humankind was being revealed through a proper recollection of its distant past. Chariots prompted a slew of imitations, some better and many worse, and a vast body of ancient astronaut literature emerged, sometimes crudely literalistic, sometimes risible, and occasionally intriguing and strangely persuasive. The astronauts and shamans of 60s television – William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Rod Sterling – returned to narrate documentaries that dazzled young viewers with vistas of ancient Mayan and Aztec architecture turning full circle to meet the Space Age technologies of the previous decade. The ancient astronaut became an integral part of the weird, post-psychedelic mindscape of 70s popular culture:
To be continued.