Ancient Aliens (and a defense of mythology)

Even if you don’t watch the History Channel, you’ve probably heard of the show Ancient Aliens from this popular internet meme.  If you haven’t seen the show, you can probably assume what it’s about.  A bunch of crackpot ‘scientists’ pore through historical artifacts and ancient myths looking for evidence of alien encounters with ancient peoples.  After only a few viewings of the show, you begin to notice that there is a core group of about three ‘historians’ who assert these theories.  Other experts are brought in to talk about the evidence, but it usually takes cutting back to crazy-hair-and-crazier-name up there to come around to the punchline of the show, ‘Aliens’ – although he usually uses the term ‘extra-terrestrials’ with a lisp that’s as embarrassing as his hair.  Now despite my chastising of these loons, I actually really enjoy watching the show.  It presents a lot of history and ancient cultures that you wouldn’t usually hear about otherwise.  And if you have any sense in your head, you can usually figure out a better explanation for these historical mysteries than aliens, but at that point you’re too busy laughing at dude’s hair, which seems to get more out of control with every episode.

The ‘ancient alien’ or ‘ancient astronaut’ theory is not a new one by any means.  The alien explanation has been a recurring joke of archaeology since someone looked at the pyramids and said “How the hell did they do that?”  It’s the archaeologist’s way of saying, “Beats me.”  But ‘ancient alien theorists,’ which the show asserts is a real profession, take the explanation way more seriously.  Any piece of archaeological evidence that has even the slightest ambiguity in its origin, becomes evidence not only of aliens, but that aliens have been interacting with humans since we weren’t humans.  The theory only gets crazier from there, claiming that aliens had a direct influence on our evolution, and that we may be descendants of aliens fucking monkeys or something crazy like that.

The most common evidence they use for their theories, however, is not physical.  The ‘theorists’ claim that ancient myths of ‘gods,’ ‘angels,’ and other heavenly beings coming down from the sky, are misinterpretations of ancient alien encounters.  While some of these stories do bear striking resemblances to modern accounts of alien encounters, the theorists are entirely missing what that infers.  What these people fail to realize is that aliens are a modern myth.  Their claim that ancient myths merely ‘misinterpreted’ alien encounters, asserts that aliens are a proven fact.  The truth is we still know as little about these encounters as the ancients did.  We think that because we are more advanced technologically, that we have a better idea of what’s going on in these encounters, but we do not.  Any theory about aliens necessitates technology that does not exist, and has not been proven to be possible.  We are simply doing the same thing the ancients did, and putting these stories into a context that we understand.  The entire notion of aliens, abductions, alien testing on humans, is all a modern myth generated by sparse accounts of loosely similar experiences, just as the ancient myths were.  Yet these ‘theorists’ are quick to denounce the ancient interpretations as myth, and assert the modern interpretation as true.  This leads me to a more general, and much more destructive, misinterpretation: that of myth.

In modern connotation, the word ‘myth’ has become synonymous with ‘lie.’  It’s a way of dismissing something that isn’t true as irrelevant.  We apply the term ‘mythology’ to any religion or other set of stories that we want to do away with.  This is one way the modern religions dismissed paganism and other older religions.  We think of mythology as archaic and primitive, without realizing that we still participate in mythology.  The defining characteristic of a myth is not whether or not it is true, it is what function it serves in our collective psyche and our society.  Mythologists often use the example of superheros as the quintessential ‘modern myth.’  These characters transcend the individual stories they are in and become major influences on our culture despite being fictional.  A person who may have never read a Batman comic or seen a movie, knows who Batman is.  And the same can be said for Superman, V, Luke Skywalker, you name it.  But myths aren’t always based on fictional characters.  Some, like aliens, are based on actual experiences, and could be true.  One modern mythological figure that is completely true, is that of the G-man.  ‘G-men’ or ‘Men In Black’ (not the movie) are based on real people in our societies, yet their characters transcend the actuality of their origins.  They serve the same function as some demons of ancient myths.  They are mysterious and faceless creatures that have vast control over our lives and are typically indifferent or malevolent towards humans and our values.

So the correlation between ancient myths of ‘gods’ and ‘angels’ and the modern myths of aliens is no coincidence.  They serve the same mythological function: advanced beings from a realm beyond the earth that interfere or assist in human development.  Sometimes they are benevolent, sometimes malicious, but most of the time indifferent.  Often they can control events and physical forces that are beyond our control, such as time, weather, etc.  They sometimes give prophetic messages, or whisk unsuspecting humans off into the unknown and reveal to them mysteries of the universe.  The one interpretation does not validate the other or vice versa.  The ancients did not misinterpret aliens as gods.  We and the ancients have misinterpreted something that we don’t understand as something that we can understand, as we have done throughout history.  The commonalities are what’s important.  The fact that we need some type of figure or character to serve that function tells us something about our own psyche.  We yearn for the existence of a race of beings that lives beyond the trials and sorrows of human life.  The question is not, ‘are gods actually aliens?’; the question is, ‘why do we want to believe that such beings exist?’