Beginning with amorphous “green fireballs” and “ghost rockets” in the 1940s, by the 1950s and 60s, these “UFOs”, as they were dubbed by head of the USAF Project Blue Book Edward Ruppelt, began to often appear as saucer or disc-shaped. Later, objects resembling eggs, cigars, and a host of other shapes were continually reported up until the later 1980s, when large, silent triangle-shaped aircraft began to become most prevalent amidst popular reports of mystery aircraft in our skies.
Reports of amorphous “green fireballs’ and “ghost rockets” in the 1940s gave way to sightings of saucer or disc-shaped objects in the 1950s and ’60s. USAF Project Blue Book head Edward Ruppelt dubbed these objects “UFOs.” Between the 1970s and late 1980s, witnesses reported UFOs resembling eggs, cigars, and other shapes. After the late ’80s, witnesses most frequently reported large, silent triangle-shaped aircraft.
I also wanted to take a moment to discuss reports this week that the tomb of Aristotle had been discovered in Stagira, the Greek city where Aristotle lived much of his life. On the 2,400th anniversary of the birth of Aristotle, archaeologist Konstantinos Sismanidis suggested that a tomb he found in 1996 is likely that of the famous philosopher, even though he admitted that no hard evidence confirmed the identification of the site with Aristotle. No inscriptions and no bones or ashes were found, but Sismanidis plans to make a case for it being Aristotle’s tomb in a forthcoming multivolume book. The controversy, needless to say, will help to propel sales.
The small tomb contained an altar and a marble floor and stood beside a semicircular building of unknown purpose that Sismanidis believes could have been a gathering place for local residents.
Aristotle died on the island of Euboea in 322 BCE, so why would Sismanidis claim that the Stagira tomb belonged to him? The answer lies in a handful of medieval Arabic and Syriac documents typically known as the Vita Aristotelis. There are two in Syriac and four in Arabic. Four of these texts give the same account of Aristotle’s ashes in more or less the same words. They are based, in turn, on a late antique Greek biography of Aristotle by the historian Ptolemy al-Gharib, who is not to be confused with the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy. (This Ptolemy’s dates are uncertain; many feel he wrote in the third century CE.) An Arabic translation of his text was discovered in Istanbul in the 1970s, but I am not aware of an English translation of it.
Anyway, there are two parts to the story. The Arabic and Syriac texts, along with a Greek text called the Vita Marciana and a Latin translation called the Vita Aristotelis Latina agree that Aristotle’s remains were carried from Euboea to Stagira. They also agree with the second contention, that the people of Stagira named a meeting-place for the philosopher. The story as given in Mubashir’s Arabic Vita (II) tells us, in the 1964 translation of Anton-Hermann Chroust: “They [the citizens of Stagira] sought comfort at the place of his tomb, and peace and tranquility where his bones rested. When something in the domain of philosophy or learning seemed to them too difficult, they went to that place to sit down and deliberate. […] For they believed that their coming to the place where Aristotle’s remains were buried would purify their minds, improve their judgment, and increase their understanding of things.”
In the Western tradition, we find the same story given in John Mandeville’s Travels around 1360 CE, echoing the Arabic texts nearly verbatim:
In this country was Aristotle born, in a city that men clepe Stagyra, a little from the city of Thrace. And at Stagyra lieth Aristotle; and there is an altar upon his tomb. And there make men great feasts for him every year, as though he were a saint. And at his altar they holden their great councils and their assemblies, and they hope, that through inspiration of God and of him, they shall have the better council. (chapter 3)
Strictly speaking, these stories don’t quite tell us what they seem to. First, there is the matter of logic: Ptolemy’s text was composed around 500 years after Aristotle’s death. Even if we take it at face value, it proves only that the people of Stagira in the second century CE thought they had the ashes of Aristotle and so honored them, just as the people of other Greek cities had graves of the (imaginary) heroes like Theseus. The second is the nagging concern that the tomb of Aristotle doesn’t appear in literary works where we should expect it to. Diogenes Laertius, in his third century CE Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, describes the death of Aristotle from what he says was a work by Eumelus that ascribes Socrates’ trial and death to Aristotle. Diogenes makes no mention of a tomb in Stagira. None of the ancient travelers or geographers from 322 BCE to the Imperial period made mention of the tomb as an important site.
Thus, the literary evidence suggests that the “tomb” of Aristotle might have been a local tradition in the manner of the Greek hero shrines, one that developed over time during the heyday of the Neoplatonist school on the declining side of Antiquity. Otherwise, we should have heard something of it earlier. None of this disproves that Aristotle’s body was taken to Stagira, but it makes it more problematic to separate the facts from the legend that grew up around it.
This isn’t even the first time that a similar claim had been made! In 1891, Charles Waldstein thought he discovered Aristotle’s tomb on Euboea at Eretria, and hesitated to make it public for fear he’s be accused of faking the find:
When the possibility, and even the probability, that the tomb I was excavating at Eretria, last month, was that of the great philosopher Aristotle, flashed through my mind, the thrill of excitement and joy was at once modified by the fear and dread of the effect which such a piece of news would create throughout the learned world. It seemed to be too good to be true; and the further coincidence of the possible discovery of the philosopher’s remains, following immediately upon the footsteps of the discovery of the manuscript of his Athenian politics, smacked so much of the ‘prearranged’ as at once to invite the charge of imposture.
The bottom line is that even if the site in Stagira was in Late Antiquity identified as Aristotle’s tomb, we are unlikely to be able to distinguish between (a) an actual tomb of the real Aristotle, (b) a tomb containing random bones ancient people wrongly believed to belong to Aristotle, and (c) a fake tomb built later in honor of Aristotle around which legends congealed.
As for me, I’m not sure how much we can trust Ptolemy al-Gharib, especially since the accounts that derive from his contain numerous other claims that extremely unlikely or even false.