"Since 1950, almost every top publishing house in the United States has been issuing books that its editors know to be occult garbage. Why? The answer is obvious. Like worthless diet books, they make lots of money."
—Martin Gardner, 1991. (1)
(Swans - June 4, 2012) Irrespective of a lack of credible evidence, belief in alien visitation is high. Moreover, in the presence of a spiritual vacuum even fiction can apparently serve as a viable replacement for religious doctrine. This trend is demonstrated by the literary legacy of H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), whose frightful occult narratives have slowly morphed from the realms of fiction to nonfiction: a form of alphabetical alchemy that provides the subject matter for Jason Colavito's delightful book The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture (Prometheus Books, 2005).
Like all good writers, Lovecraft believed that for his fiction to truly ensnare the imagination of the public it was his duty to do his utmost to fully immerse them within his tales. For a start he did this by drawing inspiration from the then "widely held beliefs in alternative archeology and spiritualism"; but beyond infusing realism in his storytelling, Lovecraft concluded that a little literary collusion would help his readers suspend their critical faculties. Taking an unorthodox approach to storytelling, he thus persuaded his fellow writers and friends (like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Howard) to cross-reference each others' stories to add an extra illusionary dimension to their otherworldly narratives. (2)
"It rather amuses the different writers," Lovecraft wrote in a 1934 letter, "to use one another's synthetic demons & imaginary books in their stories -- so that Clark Ashton Smith often speaks of my Necronomicon while I refer to his Book of Eibon... & so on. This pooling of resources tends to build up quite a pseudo-convincing background of dark mythology, legendry, & bibliography -- though of course, none of us has the least wish to actually mislead readers." It was, he said, "sheer fun."
Readers, however, enjoyed being misled, and despite Lovecraft's fervent denials, like the one quoted above, letters continued to come demanding to know Lovecraft's source for occult knowledge. He patiently explained that it was nothing but a figment of his own overwrought imagination, but such denials did no good. (pp.80-1)
Being "a man of science, an atheist and a materialist," it is therefore exceedingly ironic that Lovecraft went on to "become the father of an antiscientific, irrationalist tradition." His stories found an especially powerful echo among individuals inspired by the esoteric tradition, who preferred to believe that Lovecraft's "stories were fact disguised as fiction." In this light, one of Lovecraft's most enduring contributions to the world of "nonfiction" was his creation of the extraterrestrial-genesis theory (also known as the ancient-astronaut theory). (3)
As this essay will now go on to demonstrate, Lovecraft's fictional work has served to fortify, and provide sustenance to, all manner of ridiculous beliefs, including not least the French theorists of postmodernism (like Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari). (4) Indeed, Lovecraft's stories presented the perfect foil for postmodern ideas, which found a comfortable home in his fictional "world where ignorance and superstition were welcome respites from unsatisfying truths." Here, credit for the influence on Lovecraft's ideas in France should be given to Louis Pauwles and Jacques Bergier, who in 1965 founded one of the "most successful of the French science fiction magazines," Planete. Pauwles and Bergier held Lovecraft as "their prophet," and with much of his work having recently been translated into French between 1954 and 1961, they acted to further popularize his work, republishing many of his short stories in their journal, Planete. Yet their influence extended far beyond France and their most famous contribution on this front was their 1960 "irrationalist, Romantic treatise," Les matin des magiciens.(5)
Translated into English in Britain as Dawn of Magic in 1963, the book came to the United States as Morning of the Magicians the following year. The book is little remembered now, but it has the distinction of launching a revival of interest in the occult in the 1960s and 1970s that would culminate in the ancient-astronaut craze of the 1970s, Satanism scares, and talking to one's plants to encourage growth. (p.133)
As Colavito adds:
While Pauwles wrote most of the philosophical aspects of the book, Bergier added information about UFOs, extraterrestrials, and the like. Bergier, the scientist, was obsessed with fringe science, and enjoyed digging up information on all aspects of the topic. The book covered everything from pyramidology (the belief that the Egyptian pyramids held ancient secrets) to supposed advanced technology in the ancient world. Likewise, the authors praised Arthur Machen, the Irish author of horror fiction, about surviving Celtic mythological creatures, and they discussed the genius of H. P. Lovecraft in the same breath as the scientist Albert Einstein and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. From Lovecraft, Bergier and Pauwles borrowed the one thought that would be of more importance than any other in their book. As we have seen, Morning of the Magicians speculates that extraterrestrial beings may be responsible for the rise of the human race and the development of its culture, a theme Lovecraft invented. (pp.136-7)
The extraterrestrial-genesis theory was soon to find an even more influential exponent in the form of Erich von Daniken's international bestseller Chariots of the Gods?, which was originally published in German in 1968. This book "borrowed heavily" and "largely without credit" from both Bergier and Pauwles and also from Robert Charroux's book Le livre des maitres du monde, which was published in French in 1967. Chariots of the Gods? then received welcome promotion in the United States and beyond when the host and producer of the popular science fiction show The Twilight Zone became obsessed with von Daniken's thesis and made a television documentary based on his book titled "In Search of Ancient Astronauts," which aired in 1973 on NBC. "The documentary was a huge success and catapulted the ancient-astronaut hypothesis from the intellectual fringe right into Middle America." (6)
Refutations of von Daniken's nonsensical ideas came forth in the form of Clifford Wilson's Crash Go the Chariots (1972) and Peter White's The Past Is Human (1974), "both of which devastated nearly every one of von Daniken's major claims." Likewise, in 1976 the astronaut Neil Armstrong mounted an expedition to investigate von Daniken's tall tale, which ended up providing further evidence of the falsity of his claims, while PBS's Nova "also rebuked von Daniken in a well-researched, well-explained special, 'The Case of the Ancient Astronauts.'" (7) Yet as is often the case, the debunkers' messages failed to reach many of the four million people who already owned a copy of Chariots of the Gods?.
Moreover, the problem of mass belief in what were initially fictional stories intensified when the corporate media decide to back the equally ludicrous claims of a more respected establishment writer, Robert Temple. A man who in January 1976 "announce[d] that frog people from the star Sirius gave civilization to mankind around 5000 BCE." (8) His book, The Sirius Mystery, was published in January 1976, but despite his establishment credentials it turns out that Temple was a longstanding aficionado of mumbo jumbo, as some ten years earlier (at the age of twenty-one )Temple had served as the assistant secretary of the Foundation for the Study of Consciousness. (9) Either way, journalists seemed to love nothing more than wallowing in mysticism and "embraced the Sirius Mystery as a respectable alternative to Chariots of the Gods?". The ancient-astronaut theory thus gained new wind, with Time magazine giving Temple "a glowing review"; while even the prestigious scientific journal Nature observed that it was a "fascinating book" which "should be taken seriously." "With no firm rebuttal such as von Daniken had received, Temple's work took on the air of a closed case among the developing ancient-astronaut subculture." (10)
This, however, was not the end of the matter, and in later years another well established journalist for the corporate media, Graham Hancock, moved into the realm of occult studies after making a "life-changing" trip to Ethiopia in 1983. He had been invited to write a history of the country for Mengistu Haile Mariam, who "asked Hancock to emphasize the ancient cultures of Ethiopia and their achievements." Subsequently while undertaking research on the Ark of the Covenant, which was housed in the ancient city of Axum, Hancock became obsessed with the occult, which proved to be the subject matter for his first international bestseller The Sign and the Seal (1992). (11) Following hot on the heels of this success he then published his seminal work Fingerprints of the Gods (1995).
Unlike his disgraced predecessor von Daniken, Hancock attempted to provide solid, if controversial, proof of his claims. Unlike von Daniken, Hancock also avoided the extraterrestrial hypothesis.
Fingerprints of the Gods was arguably the most successful and most important work of "alternative history" in the twentieth century. Told in the exciting style of an archaeological adventure like Indiana Jones, Fingerprints depicted Hancock's thrilling journey around the world in search of ancient mysteries. This tale was read by millions and featured in newspapers, magazines, and television documentaries. More people around the world were exposed to and believed Hancock's theories than with any previous author in the genre. (pp.226-7)
Then, in 1996, Hancock and Robert Bauval, who he had recently teamed up to coauthor Message of the Sphinx, "made a startling claim: Mars may have had an ancient civilization that gave rise to Earth's prehistoric cultures. It seemed that the pair had renounced the lost civilization and had embraced the ancient-astronaut theory." (12) Therefore, it is fitting that in response to this rising tide of rubbish that in 2001 Jason Colavito launched his Web site, "Lost Civilizations Uncovered," which contained his ongoing criticisms of Lovecraft's numerous "nonfictional" successors, and ultimately provided the raw material upon which he based his intriguing book.
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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work. (back)
1. Martin Gardner, The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher (Prometheus Books, 1991), p.123. (back)
2. Colavito, The Cult of Alien Gods, p.81, p.80. (back)
3. Colavito, The Cult of Alien Gods, p.81. The fiction of the extraterrestrial-genesis myth was first told in H.P. Lovecraft's 1926 story "The Call of Cthulhu." "Building on an idea found in embryo in Charles Fort's Book of the Damned, which Lovecraft often mined for inspiration, here for the first time the great pseudoscientific traditions and the science fiction and fantasy veins came together in one tale, a tale that would later transform alternative archeology into an extraterrestrial affair." (p.74)
The relatively new and widely available medium through which popular writers like Lovecraft reached out to the public with their escapist stories were pulp fiction magazines. One example was the horror pulp magazine, Weird Tales, which was founded by J .C. Henneberger in 1923 and soon became the primary outlet for Lovecraft's literary escapades. "Often near bankruptcy, Weird Tales earned a new lease on life when controversy struck one of Lovecraft's revisions. Called 'The Loved Dead,' the story appeared under the byline of C. M. Eddy and featured a gruesome and (for the time) explicit tale of necrophilia. Telling of a reclusive young man who develops an unnatural obsession with funerals and death, 'The Loved Dead' shocked more conservative readers with its disturbing language."
Lovecraft was an extremely prolific writer and so he also published work under other bylines, in addition to ghostwriting for other less talented writers, like for example the magician Harry Houdini, a forthright and extremely vocal opponent of fake psychic mediums. Ironically, the single article he penned for Houdini built upon an idea proposed by Houdini for a supposedly true ghost tale. No doubt, despite Houdini's otherwise good intentions, such collaborations only served to confound an already mystified public with regards to Houdini's position on the legitimacy of spiritualism. Colavito, The Cult of Alien Gods, p.85, p.86, p.87. (back)
4. Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Blackwell, 1996). (back)
5. Colavito, The Cult of Alien Gods, p.131, p.130, p.136. "By the 1980s, the French scholar Maurice Levy examined Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic, and the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote in praise of Lovecraft's use of radical theories in their treatise A Thousand Plateaus." (p.130)
"Returning to our theme of modern history as a battle between Classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, between the Enlightenment and the Romantic period, the battle between modernism and the emerging postmodernism, exemplified by Morning of the Magicians, is quickly seen as not so modern at all. This was an old battle, but in collecting the previous generation of evidence in a new way, Pauwles and Bergier introduced a new generation of readers to the same ancient mysteries that led Lovecraft to his story ideas decades earlier. Only now, instead of culminating in powerful fiction, this new intersection would yield an endless stream of 'nonfiction,' whose label, of course, is not synonymous with 'fact.'" (p.136) (back)
6. Colavito, The Cult of Alien Gods, p.141, p.14, pp.14-5. The two individuals behind the creation of the documentary were Rod Serling (who also wrote the script for the film Planet of the Apes) and Alan Landsburg. "By the beginning of 1974, four million copies [of Chariot of the Gods?] were in print, and the sequels Gods from Outer Space and Gold of the Gods were selling rapidly. Other authors quickly jumped on the bandwagon, including Alan Landsburg, who, along with his wife, released In Search of Ancient Mysteries and its follow-up, The Outer Space Connection, providing a still larger compendium of ancient mysteries." (p.15)
"French author Robert Charroux was among the first to expand on the ancient-astronaut theme. In his books like 1967's Le livre des maitres du monde, Charroux developed further the Lovecraft-Pauwles-Bergier hypothesis, finding hidden in religious texts from the Bible to the Hindu Vedas allusions to flying discs that he equated with flying saucers." (p.138) (back)
7. Colavito, The Cult of Alien Gods, p.166. Erich von Daniken's follow-up book Gods from Outer Space was full of just as much rubbish as his first book. For example, he "quotes extensively from the Book of Dzyan, praising its tremendous antediluvian grasp of Earth's primal heritage. He is blissfully unaware that said book, as we have seen, originated in the mind of Helena Blavatsky and is known only from her book, The Secret Doctrine. It was possibly one of the inspirations for H.P. Lovecraft's Necronomicon." (p.154)
Another influential, albeit relatively unknown proponent of the ancient-astronaut theory is Zecharia Sitchin, whose quest to demonstrate that Nibiru aliens genetically engineered humanity began in 1976 when he published his best-seller The Twelfth Planet. His numerous books have in turn inspired Erich von Daniken who "borrowed liberally from the work of Sitchin, citing him time and again as his source for important revelations in his later books." One of Sitchin's leading critics is Robert Hafernik. It is also noteworthy that the Raelian's used Sitchin's work to justify their interest in human cloning. Colavito, The Cult of Alien Gods, p.269, p.283, p.280. (back)
8. Colavito, The Cult of Alien Gods, p.185. "A respected American expatriate scholar living in London and accomplished historian of science, Temple served as a member of several important and prestigious organizations: the Royal Astronomical Society, the British School of Archeology at Athens, the Institute of Classical Studies, the Institute of Historical Research, and many others. The author of numerous books, including The Genius of China and an illustrated edition of James Frazer's Golden Bough, such a credentialed scholar was one of the last people anyone would expect to announce that frog people from the star Sirius gave civilization to mankind around 5000 BCE." (p.185) (back)
9. Colavito, The Cult of Alien Gods, p.187. The Foundation for the Study of Consciousness was established in 1952 by the inventor of the Bell helicopter, Arthur M. Young, who went on to write Reflexive Universe: The Evolution of Consciousness, "on which Temple worked, and which was published in 1976." Young had become "convinced that there were unexplained mysteries in the human mind and that telepathy was real. He set up the Foundation for the Study of Consciousness in 1952 to explore these mysteries..." Young had introduced Temple to "the work of a pair of French anthropologists [Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen] who had made startling claims about an obscure tribe in the heart of Africa. This would become the 'Sirius Mystery.'" (p.187)
"The magazine Skeptical Inquirer, which investigates claims of the paranormal, attempted to refute Temple in 1978, but without a firm rebuttal to Griaule and Dieteren, could not prove its case definitively. Further, the Skeptical Inquirer's small circulation (less than 60,000) kept such rebuttals limited only to those who already sought them out. In the public sphere there was little opposition, and this seemed a concession that Temple was clearly on to something. With no firm rebuttal such as von Daniken had received, Temple's work took on the air of a closed case among the developing ancient-astronaut subculture. The Sirius Mystery inspired a symphonic poem by Karlheinz Stockhausen, who came to believe he had actually gone to Sirius, and a series of science fiction novels by Doris Lessing. Radical African-American scholars, in the process of revitalizing black culture in America, seized upon Temple's revelations to 'prove' that Africans had advanced science in ancient times and gave their knowledge to the rest of the world in an African cultural genesis." (p.198) For further details, see Ian Ridpath, "Investigating the Sirius 'Mystery,'" (pdf) Skeptical Inquirer, 3 (1), 1978, pp.56-62; and Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, "The Dogon Revisted," Doug's Archeology Page, Undated. (back)
10. Colavito, The Cult of Alien Gods, p.197, p.198. Isaac Asimov, "was quoted in promotional material as saying he could find no errors in the book." (p.197) Asimov subsequently "vociferously complained that Temple misrepresented him" writing that: "Robert Temple on three different occasions, by mail and phone, attempted to get support from me and I steadfastly refused. He sent me the manuscript which I found unreadable. Finally, he asked me point-blank if I could point out any errors in it and partly out of politeness, partly to get rid of him, and partly because I had been able to read very little of the book so that the answer was true, I said I could not point out any errors. He certainly did not have permission to use that statement as part of the promotion, I'll just have to be even more careful hereafter." (p.200) (back)
11. Colavito, The Cult of Alien Gods, p.224. "Covering some of the same ground that Erich von Daniken tread in his failed speculations about the Ark, Hancock wondered at the Ark's amazing powers." (p.225) "Hancock worked for the renowned newspaper The Economist for many years and wrote several critically acclaimed books, including AIDS: The Deadly Epidemic and Lords of Poverty, before making a 'life-changing' trip to Ethiopia, where he became a convert to a new faith based on a great legacy allegedly handed down from the most ancient times." (p.224) (back)
12. Colavito, The Cult of Alien Gods, p.240. An uncritical BBC documentary titled "The Great Pyramid: Gateway to the Stars," had previously boosted the alternative theories of Robert Bauval. As Colavito notes: "From the show, I had no idea that the Orion Correlation was controversial or 'alternative.'" When BBC1 finally got round to making a critical documentary in 2000, Hancock simply filed a complaint and "the BBC reedited the show after the Broadcasting Standards Commission agreed with the authors that Horizon was unfair." Ironically, by 2002, Hancock had "conceded that much of Fingerprints was unfounded speculation..." Colavito, The Cult of Alien Gods, p.238, p.239, p.256. (back)