“Ancient astronauts.” “Alternative archeology.” “Extraterrestrial Genesis.” Each of these terms has become a part of the cultural lexicon over the last few decades. According to Jason Colavito, these concepts don’t stem from new, insightful analysis. Rather, they come from the work of H.P. Lovecraft, the early 20th Century American author best known for his horror stories and the Cthulhu mythos.
Colavito’s The Cult of Alien Gods not only explores and supports this proposition, it traces and deconstructs the development of various theories that suggest aliens visited Earth during prehistory or are responsible for the origination of the human race. Colavito’s thesis is very readable and relatively straightforward.
Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos was based on a variety of monstrous alien deities that predate mankind. His themes included stories about now-disappeared million-year-old civilizations begun by aliens who created human life as an experiment. In addition to his own stories, Lovecraft exchanged correspondence with a variety of other authors who also contributed to pulp magazines like Weird Tales that Colavito calls “the Lovecraft Circle.” These authors — who included Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, and Robert E. Howard, the creator of the Conan the Barbarian series — incorporated elements of the Cthulhu mythos into their stories, as well as another Lovecraft invention, the Necronomicon, a fictional book of magical knowledge. Colavito then traces how U.S. involvement in World War II brought Lovecraft’s and similar works to France and asserts that Lovecraft became a significant influence on European science fiction. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, though, the science fiction purports to move to fact.
The most widely recognized progenitor was Erich von Daniken’s bestselling Chariots of the Gods? published in Europe in 1968 and in the United States in 1971. Originally serialized in The National Enquirer, there were more than four million copies of the book in print by 1974. The book’s theory is that various archaeological sites and ancient texts were evidence that space travelers had visited the Earth thousands of years ago. Treated as gods by the native populations, the alien encounters gave rise to various religions and the ancient civilizations obtained technology from the aliens that subsequently disappeared with those civilizations.
Colavito lays out a fairly convincing case in tracing the relationship between Lovecraft’s fictional lore and the rise of these theories. Yet Colavito recognizes that these seeds could not have grown without fertile soil. According to him, von Daniken’s work spurred similar books, which together with related developments in society — such as the Viking space explorers — made 1976 the turning point in the growth and acceptance of such ideas.
Perhaps Colavito’s most interesting argument is that this acceptance stemmed in part from science itself. Advances in science raised questions about religion and man’s place in the universe. Such questions in turn led people to look for replacement belief systems. Segments of the population latched on to the pseudoscience of the ancient astronaut theories as an alternative to both creationism and Darwinism.
Approximately the last half of The Cult of Alien Gods switches from the focus of the Lovecraft-ancient astronaut connection to the tracing and critiquing of the continuing development of these theories. Colavito examines various works that played key roles in the genre. These include Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods, which argued that a long-lost and forgotten advanced civilization existed on Earth in roughly 10,500 BCE, and Zecharia Sitchin’s The Twelfth Planet, which claimed residents of a planet that enters the inner solar system every 3,600 years were responsible for the rise of Sumerian culture. Coming from research he did for his own-web-based magazine and a 2004 article he wrote for Skeptic magazine, Colavito applies a skeptical and exacting eye to these books and the theories they espouse. Not only does he view them as pseudoscience, he sees the acceptance of their theories as evidence of Western civilization’s decline and an attack on values and ideas stemming from the Age of Enlightenment.
Here though, Colavito tends to paint with too broad a brush. For example, in asserting that 1976 was a turning point, he says: “Western civilization had run its course; its major goals — liberty, equality, fraternity — were largely, if not completely, accomplished[.] …. In such a climate it was no wonder mystery and the occult were replacing logic and reason.” Similarly, he asserts that
as the education system gradually broke down in the twentieth century, ever-larger [sic] numbers of people were leaving school ignorant of methodology and indoctrinated only in diversity and political correctness. They lacked the tools to understand or to think, and they resented the educated elite who told them what was right or true.
While some underlying malaise or problems with educational systems may have contributed to the acceptance of these theories, it stretches the point to imply a systemic collapse of Western culture.
If one ignores the sporadic hyperbole, Colavito’s work generally succeeds in the exploration of its two main themes. It is an admirable survey of Lovecraft’s influence on modern pop culture. It serves equally well as a first-class examination and analysis of the rise of the ancient astronaut theories, their variants and the cultural conditions that nurtured them.