“Hello,” says the brisk and slightly accented voice on the telephone. “I’m Erich von Däniken.”
I can feel a little shiver of excitement pass through my body – and then back in time, to 14-year-old me, entranced by a garish paperback with his name on the cover. “NGL”, as the young people say: when I was asked to interview von Däniken, my first feeling was astonishment that this titanic figure in late 20th-century popular publishing was still with us.
For those younger readers who won’t remember his work, von Däniken wrote the cult non-fiction book of all cult non-fiction books. His 1968 Chariots of the Gods – subtitled, “Was God An Astronaut?” – was a fixture on every 1970s bookshelf and its argument was propounded in any number of dope-clouded student common-rooms. That argument, as the subtitle indicates, was that aliens visited our planet in the distant past, and that all sorts of archaeological oddities from the Great Pyramid at Giza to the mysterious Nazca Lines in Peru are testament to their presence.
And this spry Swiss gentleman, to whom I speak a few months before his 87th birthday, in no way resiles from that conviction. He believes that aliens mated with ancient humans and tampered with our genomes, gave us various technological and scientific leg-ups, and then left Earth with the promise to return; which, he thinks, half a century of UFO sightings indicates is a promise they made good on. He says the folk memory of these aliens – with their fiery ships descending from the heavens – is encoded in the ancient texts of religions all over the world, from the book of Ezekiel to the Mahabharata and the Epic of Gilgamesh.
We’re talking because von Däniken’s work is credited with having inspired the new Marvel movie The Eternals – or, at least, the 1970s comic books by Marvel’s Jack “King” Kirby on which it was based. That story has as its premise that a team of superpowered aliens came to earth in 5,000BC, as part of an extraterrestrial mission to guide the development of intelligent life on the planet – which is essentially the von Däniken thesis. There’s no doubt that Kirby was influenced by Chariots of the Gods, but its author has never, in turn, heard of him. “The Eternals? It’s a book?” says von Däniken. “I didn’t know about that, but I’m happy to hear about it.”
The ideas that inspired Kirby, says von Däniken, germinated in him as the son of devout Catholic Swiss parents in a Jesuit boarding school. Crammed with Latin and Greek and immersed in the Bible, he became intrigued as to whether other religious texts shared the same myths.