In my review of Philip Coppens’s Ancient Alien Question, I noted that Coppens cited a 1670 French Rosicrucian novel as his source for the claim that in the time of Charlemagne aerial ships of aliens regularly trolled the medieval skies, prompting the emperor and his successor to legislate against their activities: “The people straightway believed that sorcerers had taken possession of the Air for the purpose of raising tempests and bringing hail upon their crops. […] The Emperors believed it as well; and this ridiculous chimera went so far that the wise Charlemagne, and after him Louis the Débonnaire, imposed grievous penalties upon all these supposed Tyrants of the Air” (Comte de Gabalis, Discourse V, sec. 127-128).
Coppens, of course, does not know the story firsthand but rather from material presented by Jacques Vallée in Passport to Magonia and later in Wonders in the Sky. My point was that a novel from 1670 is no proof of aerial visitors, but it did make me wonder whether there was a legitimate source behind the novel’s claims.
The story apparently traces back to the Archbishop Agobard, who wrote a treatise around 815 known as “On Hail and Thunder” which attempted to explain the popular superstitions of his time about weather-wizards from a magic cloud land called Magonia (hence Vallée’s book title). The treatise was lost for eight hundred years before being discovered and published in 1605. Here is Agobard’s discussion of the ship and its inhabitants. I don’t trust Vallée’s unnamed “translator,” so I substitute a standard translation for Vallée’s eccentric one:
We have seen and heard many who are overwhelmed by such madness, carried away by such folly, that they believe and assert that there is a certain region called Magonia, whence ships come in the clouds: the which bear away the fruits of the earth, felled by hail and destroyed by storms, to that same country; and these sailors of the air forsooth give rewards to the weather-wizards, and receive in return the crops or other fruits. Certain ones have we seen, blinded by so dark a folly, who brought into an assembly of men four persons, three men and a woman, as having fallen from the said ships; whom they held in bonds for certain days and then presented before an assembled body of men, in our presence, as aforesaid, that they should be stoned. Howbeit the truth prevailed, after much reasoning, and they who brought them forward were confounded. (trans. Reginald Lane Poole)
It’s important to recognize that this alleged evidence, as Agobard tries hard to make plain, has nothing to do with actual ships in the sky, nor did anyone actually see those poor souls about to be stoned fall from the sky. Such a belief, though, was apparently widespread in the medieval world of the early Middle Ages, with various claims that the weather-wizards worked for the devil, had ice palaces in the sky, and pelted the earth with hail to shake loose fruits that they could more easily collect from the ground. The belief that wizards had an icy city in the sky—a belief more than one scholar notes parallels Norse-Germanic conceptions of the heavens—lingered on folklore right down to the twentieth century. In 1891, Charles Godfrey Leland claimed that he encountered an old Italian woman who told him that hail was some of the stones from the wizards’ sky buildings. (Leland made up a lot of stuff and may have invented this story.)
We know, by the way, that these aerial sailors were good Christians, for in 1240 Vinsich reports in his History (30.138), as cited by Johannes Praetorius in Anthropodemus Plutonicus, that a large hailstone fell from the sky in the shape of a cross inscribed with the Latin words JESUS NAZARENUS, and it promptly cured a blind man of his affliction.
Charlemagne, however, did not legislate against sky men as the Rosicrucians and Philip Coppens want us to believe. Instead, his Admonitio generalis of March 23, 789 (cap. 65 [older texts label this 63 or 64], citing Deut. 18:10) forbade superstitious behaviors, including the consultation of weather-magicians, called tempestarii: “Nemo sit maleficus, nec incantator, nec Pythonis consultor. Ideo praecipimus ut nec cauculatores et incantatores, nec tempestarii vel obligators non fiant, et ubicunque sunt, emendentur vel damnentur” (“Let no one among you be a wizard, nor an enchanter, nor a soothsayer. Therefore, we enjoin that there shall be neither prognosticators and spell-casters, nor weather-magicians or spell-binders, and that wherever they are found they either be reformed or condemned.”—my translation.*) Another reference occurs in his Capitulare missorum generale of 802 (cap. 40), repeating the same. Neither Coppens nor Vallée is aware of the text of Charlemagne’s law, though Vallée cites it secondhand and incorrectly, because neither took the time to look it up.
From this point through about the ninth century we find a good number of references to the weather-wizards, and Agobard tells us that the peasants paid a tithe to the wizards to keep the storms at bay. What fascinates me is that this is an identical story to the tale of the Solomonari, the weather-wizards of Dacia (Romania) who rode on dragons and learned to control storms at the Devil’s School, the Scholomance, where Count Dracula allegedly studied. I have previously traced the Solomonari back to the priests of Zalmoxis, the Thracian and Dacian god, who appears in Herodotus as a culture hero. Now what is really interesting is that Zalmoxis, as chthonic weather god, has also been identified with Sabazius, the Thracian horseman sky god who entered Greco-Roman religion as a chthonic, resurrected Dionysus. This is interesting because the Rosicrucian author, in introducing the tempestarii in the Comte de Grabalis, cites Sabazius as the “most ancient of the Gnomes” and a chthonic guardian of the Mysteries!
This looks to be another case where the Church has diabolized pagan weather rituals. We can confirm this by looking at Greco-Roman weather magicians, like the philosopher Empedocles, who claimed control over wind and rain (oh, and resurrection of the dead), or the Digest of Justinian, which exempted weather-magic from a general prohibition on magic because of its importance for farming. When Hipparchus correctly predicted rain, he was hailed as almost a god (Aelian 7.8), and Ovid describes the witch Dipsas as controlling storms (Amores 1.8). Orpheus, as magician and (like Zalmoxis-Sabazius) a Thracian, used his shamanic, necromantic powers (born of his underworld journey) for weather-magic and influenced generations of Roman writers, who modeled witches after his powers. The Roman king Numa created thunder (Ovid, Fasti 3.285-398), and according to several authors, the Romans held rituals to pray for rain. A special rock, the manalis lapis, supposedly would make rain. And so on and so forth. Thus, there existed a class of people at one point who performed rituals to cause rain.
In any event, far from being confirmation of what Vallée described as belief in “a separate region from whence these vessels sailed, and about the possibility for men and women to travel with them,” Agobard’s story of the ignorant French peasantry reflects a decadent phase of weather magic dating back probably to the origins of religion itself, and one hardly extinct even today. Recall that Texas governor Rick Perry held a mass gathering to pray for rain in 2011, and Pat Robertson claimed in 1985 to be able to control Hurricane Gloria’s path through prayer, though he humbly gave credit to God for having the good sense to listen to him.
Thus, in focusing on whether the French peasants’ story was literally true, Vallée and Coppens missed a fascinating glimpse into the way pagan weather magic persisted into the Christian Middle Ages.
* Pythonis consultor is a rather obscure term that others have (albeit tentatively) translated as consult a Pythoness, taking consultor for a rare verb form and Pythonis for the Pythia of Greek religion; but I think pythonis was meant in the generic as the familiar or spirit who possesses a soothsayer, not the specific Python whose fumes the Oracle of Delphi sniffed, and consultor as noun, not verb, in parallel with the other elements of the list. Thus, the phrase would literally read the spirit's counselor or a demon-possessed counselor, which I take to mean something like a soothsayer or a psychic.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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