Pseudohistory is stranger than fiction.
In the opening act of Avengers: Infinity War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was introduced to Thanos, not just a malcontent and collector of Infinity Stones, but a descendant of Jack Kirby’s Eternals. The Eternals were creations of the Celestials, ancient space gods who re-emerged earlier this year in Jason Aaron’s Avengers #1, and continue to threaten humanity’s existence as of yesterday’s #3. With Eternals and space gods on our plate, as an archaeologist, I have a few things to say!
The symbols and monuments of the ancient world laid bare by my profession have long been mined by comic book artists to serve as backdrops for the exploits of popular super heroes, but sometimes they were more. Sometimes writers gave us alternative explanations as to how those monuments came to be.
Rip Hunter, Time Master, burst onto the comics scene in the 1950s with a plethora of time travel exploits. In these stories, we started to see comic books claim the past wasn’t what archaeologists and historians were telling us. Hunter encountered flying Bird-Men resembling those depicted in ancient Babylonian monuments, and discovered that the pyramids of ancient Egypt were built under orders from alien masters.
Convicted fraudster Erich von Däniken published the highly speculative Chariots of the Gods? a decade later, an infamous book that proposes the archaeological record is full of evidence for ancient astronauts visiting Earth. His approach is best described as a form of Rorschach ink blot test; von Däniken looked at everything from cave paintings to monumental sculptures and boldly claimed, “It looks like an alien to me!” (Notably, when he was challenged, von Däniken would often capitulate and suggest “well it looks like that to me, but maybe it is something else.”)
By and large, professional archaeologists found Chariots of the Gods? to be so ludicrous that they didn’t think it merited any serious response, but the rest of the world — including the comic book world — was paying attention. When Kirby launched his Eternals series in 1976, it was explicitly modeled on von Däniken’s claims.
In the opening pages of The Eternals, readers were told that Earth was long ago visited by a mysterious race of Celestials. These hyper-powerful beings used their advanced technology to manipulate the planet’s “primitive” life forms, resulting in the creation of the human race, along with the Eternals and the Deviants, races whom humans had long mistaken for gods and demons.
Similarly, von Däniken claimed throughout Chariots that ancient descriptions of divine figures were actually misunderstood alien encounters, and the “Space Gods” created humankind by mating with “the dim proto-humans,” rather than employing advanced genetic engineering. I guess that one wouldn’t get past the Comics Code Authority.
Why am I digging up all this old dirt? Thanos isn’t the only space god on our screens this year — the History Channel debuted the 13th season of Ancient Aliens earlier this summer. The show was founded explicitly in honor of von Däniken and his lifelong quest to popularize his ancient astronauts claim.
Ancient Aliens has continued von Däniken’s methodology, which is to say, they frequently take objects out of context and ask the audience, “Doesn’t this look like a UFO to you?” This technique is a form of confirmation bias — it presents the audience with what they want to hear without offering competing explanations.
It’s the removal of objects from their cultural context, though, that truly undermines any understanding of their original meanings. Imagine trying to figure out the significance of Superman on comics and comic culture by only looking at Superman #62. Ancient Aliens doesn’t consider art from the Egyptians or the Maya, they simply take one example, proclaim it looks like an alien and ignore any related or similar images that might help us understand what they actually depict.
Take the classic example of “Pacal’s Rocket Ship.” In Chariots, episodes of Ancient Aliens, and in Kirby’s The Eternals, it’s been suggested that the sarcophagus lid of this Classic Maya ruler Pacal depicts a man inside of a rocket ship. If you’ve never seen a piece of Maya art before, this interpretation might make some sense. After all, we can see Pacal surrounded by a bizarre structure, with wrist and ankle cuffs that might be part of a spacesuit, and his hands are making strange movements that could indicate he’s grabbing controls.
If we look at other examples of Maya art, however, we find that this bizarre structure is a common depiction of a “World Tree,” and the jaws of the underworld opening to welcome the dead king. The wrist and ankle cuffs are standard jade jewelry worn by all Maya rulers, and his odd body position conveys motion, particularly the act of falling into the underworld.
Much like with von Däniken before, most archaeologists would rather ignore the show Ancient Aliens. My colleagues often say things to the effect of, “No one really watches that show,” or, “People don’t take it seriously.” Sadly, however, people do take the show seriously. A recent poll by Chapman University found that 35% of Americans believe the Earth was visited by aliens in our ancient past. When more then three out of 10 of your friends believe something so spectacularly unlikely, for which there is no evidence, we have a problem.
But wait a second! Ancient alien claims were showing up in Rip Hunter comics long before they showed up in von Däniken’s books, and Hunter was not the only hero to bump into fictional alien astronauts. Next time, did the idea of ancient aliens originate from fact or fiction? Chthulu knows!