Ancient Civilizations and the Sixties: The Obsession with Ancient Astronauts
Amid numerous secular apocalypses of the Sixties, we cannot ignore the remarkable impact of Erich von Däniken’s book Chariots of the Gods? (the question-mark is, note, frequently omitted). Published in 1968, Chariots of the Gods? explored the idea that alien beings visited Earth in the distant past and stimulated ancient civilizations with knowledge of interstellar travel and technical feats now familiar to viewers of the Sixties Space Race and Star Trek. While von Däniken took enormous liberties with “factual fiction” to produce a compelling bestseller, the book’s interest for us lies in how its extremely colorful story was interpreted.
Chariots of the Gods
Everything we have been discussing about the Sixties had fertilized the imaginative soil into which the “chariots of the gods” idea was cast. Not content with relating heavenly symbols in Akkadian tablets discovered in Mesopotamia to pre-Columbian inscriptions of deities in contexts which—with the benefit of imaginations primed for the purpose—could be interpreted as resembling “spacecraft”, the author reinterpreted biblical stories on analogous lines, initiating a trend that continues to this day. For example, von Däniken took the description of prophet Elijah assumed to heaven in a “fiery chariot” with horses in a whirlwind (II Kings 2:3-9) as the way a ninth century BC individual would describe a flying saucer, or the like, descending to earth and taking—even abducting—a human being out of this world. And here is the nub of our point. Elijah was widely believed in Jesus’s time to be the herald whose coming to earth would signal the “Day of the Lord” (Yom Jahveh) and the last judgment. So—taking the alien scenario as a framework—if a heavenly figure returned by alien spacecraft, then the Bible’s apocalyptic scheme could be interpreted as an eventual parousia of superior technology from outer space, constituting the New Age. Spiritual ideas were trans-placed by, and confused with, scientific technology. Very soon after von Däniken’s book appeared, earnest advocates, or “channellers”, for the “mission” of alleged “spacepeople” asserted they were coming to wrap up the mystery of human existence when, it was argued, our own technology had reached a stage when confrontation with “theirs” would not precipitate our wilting into aphasic terror and helpless awe.
Sample of an Akkadian tablet discovered in Mesopotamia. (Rama / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Meanwhile, Kubrick’s astonishing 1968 movie 2001 A Space Odyssey suggested that even going to the Moon risked encounter with alien intelligence. The film’s climax turned psychedelic tripping through special-effects (colored lights) into a quasi-spiritual transformative experience, delighting audiences pre-oriented by chemical stimulants. 2001 directly attributed evolution of ancient civilization to alien contact. What is even more striking is how this whole quasi-religious scheme plugged in to popular ideas about U.F.O’s relating to fear of nuclear catastrophe: seeds powerfully planted in Robert Wise’s 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. Thus, the Sixties “Peace Movement” acquired spiritual, apocalyptic dimensions. All that was required now was a celestial visitation and sanction. “Evidence” for such celestial interest could be sought in the mysterious archaeology of ancient civilizations, while “psychics” provided extraterrestrial messages of tedious consistency: peace and love; share and share alike; beware of the military-industrial complex! Repent ye, for the kingdom of God (or alien technology) is at hand.” You could have gotten the same messages from Top of the Pops.
2001 A Space Odyssey. (Bill Lile / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Alien Role in Human Civilization
The issue of alleged alien role in human civilization was compounded by a prevalent suspicion that the Earth’s destiny was being secretly directed by supposed “hidden masters”, in the U.S. generally identified with secret government (the creepy 1967 US TV drama series The Invaders actually posited the secret takeover of government agencies by aliens indistinguishable from human authorities—aka communists—how’s that for calculated paranoia!). suspicion that government actually knew about aliens, but wasn’t telling us, fed directly into popular Belgian children’s visual storyteller Hergé’s next project, his penultimate “Tintin” adventure, Flight 714 ( Vol 714 pour Sydney in the original French).
I well recall, aged eight, seizing on a fresh copy of this book in late 1968 from the shelves of the rather magical Victorian “Athenaeaum” private library in Melbourne, Australia, which my family used to visit on Friday nights, unaware that a launch party for the book in Paris in May of that year was prevented by the epoch-marking events of Parisian students taking to the streets in the name of revolution and anti-Gaullism.
Hergé’s story has Tintin diverted by criminals to an island south of Indonesia where he accidentally uncovers underground primitive temples whose enormous stone figures strongly resemble astronauts. Tintin starts receiving telepathic messages that draw him further into the labyrinth. Eventually he encounters a secret scientist, “Mik Kanrockitoff,” apparently a freelance U.F.O. scientist-enthusiast from the magazine Space Week, who is in mental communication with aliens and who explains how the ancient people of the island worshipped extraterrestrials as gods.
Ancient astronauts proponents suggest that aliens came to Earth long ago, citing artifacts such as this ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seal. (Dyolf77 / Public Domain)
At the adventure’s climax, Tintin and friends are lifted from the exploding island by a flying saucer summoned by Kanrockitoff telepathically. The catch is that everybody but Kanrockitoff is mesmerized into forgetting the experience entirely, thus leaving the question open in (chiefly young) readers’ minds. It was all very effective, and one might have thought Erich von Däniken might have had a copyright issue with Hergé’s team in Belgium. Hergé’s biggest influence, however, seems to have been Robert Charroux’s “The Book of Betrayed Secrets” ( Le Livre des Secrets Trahis, Laffont, 1965) whose account of ancient astronauts identified with the “Watcher” angels who descended to earth to mate with human women in the apocalyptic Book of Enoch influenced von Däniken to such an extent that Charroux’s publisher suggested plagiarism to von Däniken’s in March 1968 (Charroux’s name would appear in the bibliography of subsequent editions).
Interestingly, Charroux’s background was in science-fiction writing (from the 1940s onward) and the inspiration for his ancient astronaut comes from authentic apocalyptic sources ( The Book of Enoch’s extrapolation of the account of “Nephilim” in Genesis 6:1–4) combined with burgeoning scientific expectations of space travel elaborated in mythologizing fiction. It should be appreciated that for many in the post-war world, to enter into “space” was already to encroach on the “heavens,” formerly the territory of angels and their subordinates traditionally and still widely believed to govern the planetary and stellar systems.
To enter into space was to encroach on the heavens, the territory of angels (natalia9 / AdobeStock).
John “Hoppy” Hopkins and the London Free School
The Sixties saw the birth of another influential way of looking at the spiritual significance of Ancient Civilizations. Cambridge graduate John Hopkins (1937-2015) could have enjoyed a career as a nuclear physicist, but instead chose photography as a way of getting to grips with the real world and its inhabitants. Entering the London scene on New Years’ Day 1960, by 1965 “Hoppy” had become a kind of one-man internet, compiling through his many contacts encountered on his varied photography assignments details of anyone who appeared to be “doing anything” in the fecund world of the London art and music scene. Making a stencil copy of the list, he distributed it to all the names included, thus creating a dynamic context for communication and knowledge, as well as a sense of belonging and common purpose. This was the scientist in him, which made him a practical problem-solver, as well as a person who could express his genuine enthusiasm openly. Impressed by something positive, “Hoppy” would say “Wow!” and that meant what it said.
For our purposes, “Wow” meant the first manifestation of the “counter-culture” as a self-conscious animal. A couple of months after organizing a standing-room only poetry event held on June 11, 11, 1965, at the Albert Hall, in Kensington, west London—playfully titled the International Poetry Incarnation—“Hoppy”.
Rhaune Laslett and others launched the London “Free School” in a Notting Hill basement in west London. The Free School encouraged easy acquisition of useful knowledge and crafts: a utopian place where people with skills could pass them on quickly without institutional hurdles. Out of the energies stirred up in the process came the West Indian showcase, the Notting Hill Carnival, the influential underground magazine “International Times” (that so enraged the government) and eventually the famous axle of psychedelia, the UFO Club at 31 Tottenham Court Road, established by “Hoppy” and Joe Boyd in 1966, which employed the first “light shows” in rock music. Early experimenters in light and sound were The Pink Floyd who played their first benefit show at Notting Hill’s All Saints Church to raise money for the Free School, before becoming a regular attraction of the UFO Club. A recent BBC film on the Floyd included an interview with percussionist Nick Mason who mentioned in passing that you could learn about “Gnosis” at the Free School. This was the word that Storm Thurgerson (1944–2013), the designer of the Floyd’s second album A Saucerful of Secrets (June 1968), combined with “hip” (as in “aware”) to produce the trend-leading company of album design: “Hipgnosis.”
Floyd’s second album “A Saucerful of Secrets” – a loose representation of the album cover. (tombud / Public Domain)
Contemporary Interest in Ancient Civilizations
The Free School happened in the basement of a house belonging to John Frederic Carden Michell (1933–2009). It was Michell who directly inspired the intrigue that permeates contemporary interest in Ancient Civilizations. Educated at Eton College and (like Aleister Crowley) at Trinity College, Cambridge. Michell’s Cambridge experience had been asphyxiated, as he saw it, by rationalistic and materialistic orthodoxies. For Michell, it was the emergence of the U.F.O. phenomenon in the fifties that gave leverage to opening the mind to new ideas about human origins.
Michell offered Free School courses in U.F.O’s, ley lines (invisible “power lines” believed to pulse between ancient sites of worship forming “sacred landscapes”), and Gnostic traditions . Michell’s knowledge of Gnostic lore is evident in his book The Dimensions of Paradise: Sacred Geometry, Ancient Science, and the Heavenly Order on Earth (1971).
Ley Lines. (vaXzin / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Michell accepted French spiritual philosopher, Fabre d’Olivet’s concept of the “Tradition”. The Tradition existed, it was believed, in a pre-Egyptian civilization that understood the relationship of spiritual and created orders. Suffering a primordial deformation, it descended to us in fragments, locatable as “traditional knowledge” in cultures globally and with spiritual inspiration, to be re-composed for our transformative times. It was not so much “Man”, but his knowledge base that had “fallen”.
For Michell and others, the British Isles held a unique role in the return of traditional consciousness to the world and in this belief, Michell had the support of the spiritual legacy William Blake represented in Blake’s dynamic psycho-spiritual and geographical myths (See my biography of Blake: Jersualem! The Real Life of William Blake, Watkins, 2015). In 1967, Michell’s pioneering work in what has become a small industry of “New Age” Earth Mysteries publishing began with The Flying Saucer Vision: The Holy Grail Restored, published after his article on Flying Saucers appeared in International Times in 1967, but it would be Michell’s 1969 book View over Atlantis that gave massive impetus to the spiritual-eco-aware speculations of the world’s “alternative” hippy-derived, sometimes Gnostic, magical sensibilities from the 1970s to the present time. It was Michell who drew up the Glastonbury Festival “pyramid” stage on proper cosmic dimensions and Glastonbury stands today as a living monument to this fertile Sixties-based impetus.
Top image: Concept art of an ancient astronaut (grandfailure / Adobe Stock)
This article comes from the book ‘The Spiritual Meaning of the Sixties: The Magic, Myth, and Music of the Decade That Changed the World’ by Tobias Churton.