The holy grail of outer space

On 22 February 1918, the world's first feature-length science fiction film premiered at the newly opened Palace Theatre in Copenhagen. The silent movie was called Himmelskibet (Eng. A Trip to Mars, or, directly translated, The Sky Ship) and the manuscript was written by the author, dramatist, and poet Sophus Michaelis (1865-1932). The film depicted the aviator Avanti’s trip to Mars in the “sky ship” "Excelsior".

The heavenly ladder of cosmic evolution

On Mars the expedition from Earth meets a highly developed civilization. The Martians, who look remarkably like humans, are dressed in flowing, white gowns with Egyptian ankh-signs sewn onto them. They are pacifist, teetotaling vegetarians who have not known war for millennia. And they have pyramid-shaped temples fitted as astronomical observatories on the top.

Throughout the film, it becomes clear that the Martian civilization represents a rung on the heavenly ladder of cosmic evolution, which is far above the Earth’s. They are the future that awaits humanity if it could just pull itself together. When the film was shown, World War I was still raging, throwing deep shadows over Europe – not least because footage from the front was actually shown in movie theatres. In the dark and magical cave of the theatre, the horrors of war became a real and present catastrophe to the audience. So what was more natural than trying to create a counterbalance, even an antidote, right there?

The salvational power of the silent movie

The famous American silent film director D. W. Griffith tried to do it with his film Intolerance (1916), which came right after the masterpiece The Birth of a Nation (1915). Denmark’s The Great Northern Film Company did it with Pax Aeterna (1917), about the creation of perpetual peace through the unification of the European states. And Sophus Michaëlis tried to do the same with The Sky Ship.

But why was a movie supposed to be able to create peace? Both Griffith and Michaëlis were convinced that the medium of the silent movie had special powers precisely because of its silence: film without speech. It could be understood by everyone, regardless of language and nation and the fall from grace replayed in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel could, through the universal language of cinema, be overcome. In the darkness of cinema, the gates of paradise could once again be thrust open.

Druids in space

But for Michaëlis there was more to it than that. The fact is that he was an adherent of the United Ancient Order of Druids, an offshoot of the Ancient Order of Druids founded in London in 1781. Michaëlis created the first Danish Druidic lodge, "Grail,” in 1921, and in 1927 the Druidic lodge "Parsifal" published Michaëlis' book Druide-Ordenen (Eng. The Order of the Druids). The book describes Michaëlis’ Druidic beliefs and hints at the salvational mysteries that people could be introduced to through Druidic lodges.

A close reading of The Order of the Druids, compared with the novelization of the film published by Michaëlis in 1921, makes it clear that what Michaëlis tried to create with The Sky Ship was a vision of an ideal Druidic community, peaceful in every way and placed on Mars. Through a kind of second-hand initiation in the Druidic mysteries via the film screen the Druid vision was to be translocated to Earth, thus creating peace. This also explains the strange ankh-signs - for according to Michaëlis, the ancient Druids, originally transmigrating from India, had been on a detour through the ancient Egyptian pyramids.

Druidism and the Holy Grail

The historical evidence for the existence of Druids in Iron Age Celtic culture is scarce and what their role may have been is close to impossible to decide with any certainty. Throughout the second half of the second millenia AD, however, a construction of Druids and their history took place, which intensified exponentially towards the 20th century. Connecting the legend of the Holy Grail to Arthurian legend was part of the construction of Druidic tradition and central to Michaëlis' understanding of Druidic beliefs.

In Michaëlis’ version, the Holy Grail was the chalice that Jesus gave his disciples to drink from during the Last Supper. But it was also the cup in which a certain Joseph of Arimathea supposedly collected the blood of Jesus as he bled to death on the cross. By having been in contact with Christ's saving blood the Grail received special powers. And it became a symbol of Jesus' sacrifice for humanity and for the sacrifice one has to bring in order that peace may be established in the world and everything will be good again - as it was in paradise. By realising the Grail mystery on film, its forces were to be unleashed in the world, thereby transforming it.

Outer grace

But the world continued to be the world as it is. And there were people in the audience who laughed during the premiere. For even then the film seemed a little ridiculous in all its exaggerated self-importance. It did not help that the white-clad, eternally wise Martians obviously spent a portion of the time at outside locations in Denmark all too recognisable to Danes. But looking through the slightly ridiculous surface, one recognises a pattern that is not only closely related to the science fiction genre, but also to a significant part of the literature written about the search for and contact with intelligent life in space.

For why is it interesting to make contact with another intelligent race somewhere out there? There are many practical and scientifically relevant reasons for this, but among the more over-imaginative is the idea that precisely because extraterrestrial civilisations most likely belong to a higher stage of development than we do here on Earth, they could help us solve the problems that ravage our lives here: illness,death, war, sorrow, and so on. Thus, Michaëlis' old film epic contains a story that is constantly retold: that the Holy Grail is to be found in outer space.

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Information on The Sky Ship can be found at the Danish Film Institute's website: http://www.dfi.dk/faktaomfilm/nationalfilmografien/nffilm.aspx?id=5760

The novelization of The Sky Ship, published in 1921, can be read online (in Danish) in Arkiv for Dansk Litteratur (Eng. Archive for Danish Literature):
http://www.adl.dk/adl_pub/pg/cv/ShowPgImg.xsql?nnoc=adl_pub&p_udg_id=500 ...

On Hollywood and the silent movie’s salvational powers, see Justine Brown (2002). Hollywood Utopia, Vancouver: New Star Books.

On The Sky Ship and Danish silent movies in general, see Stephan Michael Schröder (2011). Ideale Kommunikation, reale Filmproduktion Zur Interaktion von Kino und dänischer Literatur in den Erfolgsjahren des dänischen Stummfilms 1909–1918, Berliner Beiträge zur Skandinavistik, Band 18/1, Nordeuropa-Institut der Humboldt-Universität, Berlin.

A comprehensive history of Druids and Druidry in Britain can be found in Ronald Hutton (2009). Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

I have written about the plurality-of-worlds debate and religion in The Sky Ship in Thore Bjørnvig (2011), “Rummets paradis: Himmelskibet mellem astronomi og åbenbaring” in Gertrud Hvidberg-Hansen og Gertrud Oelsner (eds.), Himmelgåder: Dansk kunst og astronomi 1780-2010, Fuglsang Kunstmuseum/Fyns Kunstmuseum: 197-212.