Explaining his approach, he sums up the results of his investigation into the origins of Stonehenge: ‘I came up with the silly idea that maybe there was an extraterrestrial knowledge behind it.’ Silly idea or not, his theory has allowed him to sell 60 million books worldwide.
Erich von Däniken, born in 1935, grew up in the Swiss town of Schaffhausen. His father, who owned a clothing factory, was a devout Catholic and expected his children to take the same path. Erich admits to being afraid of him. ‘Although he was very generous, he was a strict Catholic and we had to pray all the time in the evenings,’ he says. ‘I didn’t like it.’
He was sent to the Catholic boarding school of St Michel in Fribourg. All the teachers were priests and daily Mass was compulsory. Nevertheless, he kept asking awkward questions rather than following the dictates of blind faith.
Religion did not hold back the youngster’s enquiring mind. His sister Leni Huggenberger von Däniken recalls: ‘The stars in the sky interested Erich and he would say to my father, “It must have started somewhere.” But my father could give him no answer to his questions.’ The priests did not like his probing and he would frequently get into trouble.
He also had to face other more down-to-earth attacks. While a boy scout, he was called before the local magistrate and accused of stealing money from the scout treasury. His school grades were poor, and in 1954 he left St Michel to take a job as a waiter and barman at a hotel in Bern.
Meanwhile, he was shaping his ideas on the origins of the human species. ‘I never had a revelation, it was a slow development,’ he says. Everywhere in the Bible he could see references to extraterrestrials, but he needed more evidence to support his idea that aliens from outer space once visited the earth and gave ancient humans the knowledge to create civilisation.
He decided to look for evidence in archaeology. To fund his expeditions to examine the sites of ancient peoples, he used money he earned from waiting tables. In 1960, he married his girlfriend Elisabeth, and together they worked in hotels and restaurants across Switzerland. He served a prison sentence for defrauding his boss at one hotel, was fined for petty theft and again convicted of fraud.
Undaunted by these setbacks, Däniken continued his travels. After much searching, he at last found the critical piece of evidence to back up his theories – the Palenque Stone. He says: ‘Palenque is a place in Mexico, and there is a large stone in the temple and on the stone is a kind of being sitting like in a rocket.’
Chariots of the gods?
Armed with this crucial piece of evidence, the manuscript for Chariots of the Gods? was soon finished, but publishers were not keen. One publishing house dismissed it as ’emotional ramblings’, and after 22 rejections the desperate author turned to the influential German journalist Thomas von Randow.
Von Randow suggested rewriting the manuscript, with the help of a science-fiction writer, and marketing it as fact. Chariots of the Gods?: Was God an astronaut?, published in 1967, quickly became a bestseller. It tapped into the excitement surrounding the moon landings and the increasing interest in alternative sciences.
Honesty on trial
Just as von Däniken felt that his years of work were vindicated, disaster struck. He was arrested by Interpol for non-payment of £7,000 of business tax. An extremely thorough examining magistrate uncovered a staggering £350,000 of personal debts. As well as questions of simple fraud, von Däniken’s entire character was attacked.
He was subjected to psychological examinations, labelled a homosexual and lawyers attacked his theories as nonsense. His past misdemeanours were dredged up to show that he was untrustworthy.
Many saw this extreme reaction as the conservative religious establishment trying to silence a heretic who had dared to question their views. The authorities eventually imprisoned him for three and a half years for embezzlement. During his time in jail, he continued writing. His second book, Return of the Gods, which viewed the massive sculptures on Easter Island as having been built by or for aliens, was another bestseller.
By the time of his 1971 release from prison, 2.5 million copies of his two books had been sold in 24 languages.
Decline and fall
Von Däniken’s credibility was finally undermined after he was unable to substantiate claims made in another book, Gold of the Gods, that he had photographed metal plaques containing the wisdom of extraterrestrials. In 1977, a BBC Horizon programme, The Case of the Ancient Astronauts, took a rational look at his theories and showed them to be pseudo science.
Archaeologist 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.’
Numerous other wonders cited by von Däniken as corroboration for his theories were similarly debunked. In the late 1970s he rapidly disappeared from the public arena, and in 1982 he could not find an English or American publisher for his 10th book.
In the past few years, however, his ideas have again started to become popular in a culture fascinated by programmes such as The X Files. Scientist or pseudo scientist, heretic or visionary, he is certainly tenacious and a master at whipping up a frenzy in the public imagination.