Space Aliens as Culture Heroes
In the study of mythology, gods and heroes who bring particular technologies or practices to human beings that make civilization possible are called “culture heroes,” and the mythology of the world is replete with culture heroes and culture hero myths. Culture hero myths are usually entwined with etiological myths, i.e., myths about the origins of things, since culture heroes provide for the origins of uniquely human activities and societies. Moreover, culture heroes are sometimes also trickster figures, in which case the gifts they bring are profoundly ambiguous, both in meaning and in value — something that humanity has re-discovered with the ambiguous gifts of high technology.
For westerners, one of the most obvious examples is that of Prometheus. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to human beings, and, in punishment of his action, Zeus had Prometheus chained a rock, where every day a bird would eat out his liver, only for the liver to re-grow at night and be eaten again the next day. Prometheus has been a popular subject for western art since classical antiquity, and for poetry as well: Aeschylus wrote Prometheus Bound and Shelley wrote Prometheus Unbound — two works on the same theme separated by about 2,500 years. Clearly, this is a myth with staying power.
However, almost every mythology has culture heroes. The Mesopotamian figures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu represent a kind of culture hero dialectic, in which the interaction of Gilgamesh and Enkidu reveal many of the arts of civilization. In North American Indian mythology, coyote and raven both serve as culture heroes, and both have stories of bringing fire to humanity, while in Mesoamerica the Mayan maize god makes maize available and so is the founder of civilization largely based on the cultivation of maize.
Contemporary folklore of space aliens — alien visitations, alien abductions, ancient aliens, alien technology transfer, and so on, often place space aliens in the crucial role of conveying knowledge, skills, or technology to human beings and to human societies that we would, it is claimed, not have come to on our own. I find all of this silly, but there are many who believe quite passionately in this, and part of the passion is to be understood from the fact that this folklore makes of space aliens human culture heroes.
The idea of ancient aliens visiting early human societies and giving them crucial technologies or showing them how to live as a civilized community is the most transparent substitution of space aliens for conventional culture heroes, but it doesn’t stop there. The idea of directed panspermia can take on a range of expressions, from seeding worlds and leaving them to develop on their own (a space alien culture hero who is like the Deist god of a clockwork universe) to seeding worlds and then attending to every detail of the developing complexity on that world (a space alien culture hero who is more like the benevolent god for whom the very hairs on your head are numbered). Every point along this continuum is its own distinctive story of directed panspermia, with the directing space aliens playing a slightly different role in each scenario.
A society can only formulate the idea of space aliens after it has attained a certain level of scientific knowledge and technological achievement, so it would be ahistorical to attribute space alien folklore to pre-industrialized peoples. Before the industrial revolution, societies made do with supernaturalistic culture heroes, but once the idea of space aliens was present as the result of growing scientific knowledge of the world, the folklore of space alien culture heroes started growing on its own, without any need of encouragement. It is a natural human expression of the age in which we live.
Since this idea of space alien culture heroes only came into its own during the twentieth century (when, not coincidentally, we humans ourselves became capable of spaceflight), it is not surprising that the most common permutation of the space alien culture hero idea is that of space aliens being responsible for the introduction of advanced technologies that we have seen since the twentieth century, i.e., the idea of alien technology transfers.
Here we see developing, right before our eyes, a mythological expression of intuitions about our rapidly changing society: a new form of civilization has come into being, industrialized civilization, or, if you prefer, technological civilization, and a novel etiological myth is needed in order to explain the advent of this new formulation. Thus the space alien culture hero enters upon the scene in order to gift to humanity the distinctive technologies of advanced civilizations and therefore account for this new development in history, just as our ancestors needed an etiological myth for the advent of agricultural civilization, and often found that myth in the form of a culture hero.