Did Rip Van Winkle get abducted by aliens? More importantly, why would anyone jump to that conclusion? The answer is a case study in how preexisting beliefs can prejudice an investigation and lead to false confirmation of an alien abduction narrative. This story is particularly interesting to me because it involves upstate New York, where I live and work.
Cheryl Costa is the UFO correspondent for the Syracuse New Times, an alternative newsweekly targeting upscale and affluent readers in central New York State. According to a recent article she published, in the fall of 2013, Costa was a student in a college literature class and had been assigned to write a term paper on one. She selected Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” the famous 1819 story in which the title character tries to escape his wife’s nagging by escaping into the hills. There, he encounters the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew, thunderously playing nine-pins. He drinks their liquor, falls asleep, and awakens twenty years later with a foot-long beard.
This immediately suggested to Costa that the story had alien origins.
For my term paper, I proposed to my Literature professor that Rip Van Winkle read like a modern alien abduction account. I pointed out that the Hudson valley had been a hot bed for UFO activity for decades, perhaps centuries. I explained that I was of the opinion that the Washington Irving story might be based on some older Hudson Valley folk tale or Native American story.
Superficially, this wasn’t a bad idea. Although Costa said her professor could find no academic research on the subject, Thomas E. Bullard wrote a similar piece (though not on Van Winkle) on “UFO Abduction Reports: The Supernatural Kidnap Narrative Returns in Technological Guise” in the Journal of American Folklore in 1989, and before that Jacques Vallée also noted the parallels between folklore related to abductions in Passport to Magonia (1969).
But Costa began with the assumption that the UFO phenomenon is real, and therefore her analysis slowly but methodically derailed.
She begins well enough by recognizing, as scholars have since the early 1800s, that “Rip Van Winkle” is a fairly straightforward Americanization of the German folk tale “Peter the Goatherd,” which is a charming little story but one that should immediately suggest a solution to the mystery rather than a confirmation of aliens. Irving was well-read and may have encountered the story in the form published by Johann C. C. Nachtigal in 1800. He probably encountered the book during his tour of Europe from 1804 to 1806. Since the story is rather short, let me present it as it was translated in 1828 (I will spare you the italics and present it in roman for easier reading):
Do you see the solution? We’ll get to it in a moment. First, let’s see what Costa makes of the tale. She calculates that a foot-long beard takes 24 months to produce, so she therefore rejects the 20 year timeline. She then relates the return of Rip and Peter to the “missing time” reported by alien abductees like Betty and Barney Hill (themselves influenced by science fiction!). Naturally, this leads her to wonder how Einstein’s theory of relativity can apply here:
As I read the Rip Van Winkle/Peter Klaus stories, I see a character that was with the alien visitors for twenty-four months as evidenced by the natural record of his foot long beard growth. A person who returned to Earth where twenty years had passed. Einstein’s “Theory of Special Relativity”, gives us the key to understanding how this is possible. If we travel near the speed of light. The person in the space craft ages at a slower rate than those of us back here on earth.
She concludes with the crackpot logic of Ancient Aliens: “Our ancient ancestors weren’t idiots; they are speaking to us through our ancient folks tales if we are willing take the time to look at these stories through modern eyes and interpretation.”
You will of course recall that Ancient Aliens did an episode on this very subject, called “The Time Travelers,” in which the ancient astronaut theorists similarly related folklore sleep narratives to Einstein’s time dilation. This was the episode that famously claimed that the story of the 66-year supernatural sleep of Abimelech in the extra-biblical 4 Baruch 5:1-29 was a biblical narrative.
Costa is obviously familiar with this episode and its claims.
I trust you can see that her preexisting belief in the reality of UFO abduction narratives has led her to interpret the “Peter the Goatherd” story as confirmation of the same. But her confidence in the extraterrestrial underpinning of the story led her to stop too soon, leading to a false conclusion of alien abduction.
The key to the story is its location, the Kyffhäusen. That is one of the most important localized traditions of the widespread European myth of the sleeping king. At this particular place, the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was said to sleep with his attendants until such time as he is needed. Versions of the story are also told of Charlemagne, King Wenzel, Holgar Danske, King Harold, the Duke of Monmouth, Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI, Portugal’s King Sebastian, and many others. These are localizations of what seems to have been originally a Germanic or Celtic myth associated with Odin, preserved in Greek interpretation by Plutarch, where Odin has been interpreted as Cronus, the onetime king of the gods: He wrote of “one island where Cronus is confined, guarded while he sleeps by Briareus; for his sleep has been devised as a bondage for him, and round about him are many demigods as attendants and servants” (De Defectu Oraculorum 18, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt).
As in the case of King Arthur, these servants were usually twelve in number, answering to the twelve men seen by Peter.
The corollary to this myth is that the sleepers must be roused when the time is right. From this emerged stories that the tomb in which they slept (usually a cave in a mountain) opened once every seven years, or once a century, or some other period of time. And the sleepers would check to see if they were needed. From this derived stories of peasants who chanced upon the sleepers, who asked if it was time to wake. Because they were in a magic never-never land outside reality, these visits to the sleepers were often said to have seemed to last a few hours but to have taken hours, days, or even years. This seems to be a borrowing from fairy abduction myths, which typically involve an individual encountering dancing fairies, being taken to their home, and returning after a few hours only to discover that days or even years have passed.
“Peter the Goatherd” is a much later version of a traditional story, told of the Marquis John, standing in for Frederick Barbarossa. Edwin Sidney Hartland retells the story in his Science of Fairy-Tales, translating German accounts:
A peasant going with corn to market at Nordhausen, drove by the Kyffhäuser, where he was met by a little grey man, who asked him whither he was going, and offered to reward him if he would accompany him instead. The little grey man led him through a great gateway into the mountain till they came at last to a castle. There he took from the peasant his waggon and horses, and led him into a hall gorgeously illuminated and filled with people, where he was well entertained. At last the little grey man told him it was now time he went home, and rewarding him bountifully he led him forth. His waggon and horses were given to him again, and he trudged homeward well pleased. Arrived there, however, his wife opened her eyes wide to see him, for he had been absent a year, and she had long accounted him dead. It fared not quite so well with a journeyman joiner from Nordhausen, by name Thiele, who found the mountain open, as it is every seven years, and went in. There he saw the Marquis John (whoever he may have been), with his beard spreading over the table and his nails grown through it. Around the walls lay great wine-vats, whose hoops and wood had alike rolled away; but the wine had formed its own shell and was blood-red. A little drop remained in the wine-glass which stood before the Marquis John. The joiner made bold to drain it off, and thereupon fell asleep. When he awoke again he had slept for seven years in the mountain
The similarities, down to the intoxicating beverage, are obvious, but here the sleeping king elements are much more clearly presented. This version is older and betrays its origins. Other versions have no lost time but rather make the herdsman age rapidly as a result of his supernatural encounter.
If you’re interested, the Brothers Grimm recorded simpler versions of the legend of Kyffhäuser that are probably closer to the version from before it incorporated the fairy motifs. The very presence of such variants immediately casts doubt on the more elaborate time-lapse versions as literal truth, since they are coequal with these other variants. I translate from the Grimms’ Deutschen Sagen no. 23:
In 1669, a farmer who wanted to haul his grain from the village of Reblingen to Nordhausen was led into the mountain by a little man, who told him to empty out his grain and to fill the bags with gold. He saw the Emperor sitting, but quite motionless.
Hartland was also of the opinion that “Rip Van Winkle” was a huge rip-off of “Peter the Goatherd.” In Science Hartland records dozens of similar stories—an ancient fairy-tale motif that entered into the sleeping king legend cycle from earlier stories of fairy abductions. That’s why the mysterious men are actively playing games in the “Peter” and “Rip” tales—they have become conflated with the mischievous fairies!
And here we can conclude that the “Peter the Goatherd” story is not one of alien abduction since it is a late addition to the broader sleeping king myth, one taken from fairy abduction legends. But by presupposing that myths are eyewitness account of aliens, Costa missed the origins of the specific tale she sought to illuminate.
Hartland’s Chapter VII and Chapter VIII are dedicated to the supernatural lapse of time in the land of the fairies (or the gods). The motif is well-nigh universal, known not just from Europe but also in the East, including (as mentioned) the story of Abimelech as well as the famous tale of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus; even in the oldest literary source, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim and Gilgamesh cannot age while in the Dilmun of the gods. Now at this point one might try to apply the alien abduction motif again—as indeed Thomas Bullard and Jacques Vallée have done. But there is nothing that should prejudice us in favor of aliens, there being no evidence that any such beings exist on the earth now or ever did. It is the very fact that ufologists try to impose their paradigm on these stories that makes them seem like alien abductions. We could, with equal weight of evidence, claim that “aliens” are really fairies. It is our perceptions that give shape to the stories.
7/6/2014 03:35:37 am
I always love it when they trot out the ailing "our ancestors weren't stupid" argument, especially since I've never heard anyone utter the impetus (i.e. calling our collective ancestors "stupid"). They never seem to realize that all of our understandings of ancient (or merely "old") texts passes through a number of filters to make it intelligible to modern readers. Even some 400 years ago "English" would be difficult (at best) for any of us to read and understand as the author intended. That's NOT to suggest that translations or translators are wrong, rather to point out that such "secret messages from long ago!" arguments are akin to going to a botanical garden and marveling at the "beauty of nature", willfully ignoring the fact that a team of gardeners has to tend that plot to translate wild growth into something the average person enjoys.
7/6/2014 07:09:11 am
Even beyond the "not stupid" comments, perhaps the second most popular meme amongst the ancient astronaut pontiffs is that our ancestors "wrote what they saw", that they don't have the imagination to dream up tales of big birds or giant lizards, they're just recording exactly what they saw but "in terms they understood".
7/6/2014 09:01:25 am
" Even some 400 years ago "English" would be difficult (at best) for any of us to read and understand as the author intended."
7/6/2014 09:56:08 am
Personally, I don't find Shakespeare "difficult to understand" (certainly not as a narrative!). I mean, it's not as easy as this blog, but I don't have more difficulty understanding Shakespeare than I do certain rap songs or Joyce's Ulysses. Shakespeare's English is the same language we speak. The same cannot be said of Chaucer, for example.
7/6/2014 10:42:28 am
>>>makes me want to rage every time I read Dan Brown<<<
7/6/2014 10:49:08 am
>>>my high school English class<<<
7/6/2014 10:51:06 am
>>>my high school English class<<<
7/6/2014 03:17:37 pm
EP, there are quite a lot of people who DO find Shakespeare difficult to read, and while Shakespeare's English is closer to modern English than Chaucer, take it from someone who hangs out with a crapton of reenactors, it's NOT the same. No, you don't have to take a class in "Shakespearean English" in order to read his stuff. But have you ever read a reproduction of an actual manuscript of his, or have you only read nice printed books where the spelling has been all nice and cleaned up for you, to conform to modern standards?
7/6/2014 03:36:21 pm
"there are quite a lot of people who DO find Shakespeare difficult to read"
7/6/2014 08:17:27 pm
Varika, you're an idiot - for taking the historical existence of Jesus for granted
7/7/2014 11:33:10 am
More low-grade troll fertilizer from 666.
7/7/2014 06:56:57 pm
666, I don't take the existence of Jesus for granted--however, we were discussing the premise of his virginity if he did exist, as per YOUR OWN WORDS. Clearly, you're too stupid to even read what you yourself have written. Go back to third grade and stop bothering the adults.
7/7/2014 08:26:47 pm
Varika, I won't challenge your suggestion that you know better than I do how educated or intelligent I am... though it only makes your accusations of arrogance all the more ironic.
7/8/2014 12:47:57 am
>>> Clearly, you're too stupid (from Varika)
7/8/2014 12:52:40 am
More troll filler from 666.
7/6/2014 11:23:15 am
Assuming that the myth of the returning king goes way back in time, I wonder if that is where the early followers of Jesus got the idea of his future return. Of course Paul expected him to return before the last of that generation of followers had passed away.
7/6/2014 11:34:49 am
>>>Assuming that the myth
7/6/2014 11:41:18 am
>>>There is an interesting question here
7/6/2014 02:31:22 pm
Seriously, dude. Get over yourself. You're not even a good troll. Just a persistent one.
7/6/2014 08:09:08 pm
>>>You're not even a good troll<<<
7/7/2014 01:56:55 am
Feed off what now? Your unqualified, acerbic statements about people you've never met and know nothing about? Give it up.
7/7/2014 11:37:05 am
Clint, after reading anything from 666, I find it helps to just imagine the duct tape going over his mouth.
7/8/2014 12:28:14 am
>>>after reading anything from 666
7/8/2014 12:30:48 am
>>>So I ask you to stop
7/8/2014 12:55:00 am
You presume correctly. Everyone (except you, by your own admission) has a purpose.
7/8/2014 01:17:01 am
The purpose is subjective choice and not part of an overall universal blueprint plan
7/8/2014 01:41:31 am
You are the one who implied that, not me.
7/8/2014 01:59:04 am
Incorrect. I'm not a Christian. Never have claimed to be. I simply understand that the world is more complex than you're willing to allow it to be and can see quite clearly the impact and influence Christianity and other religions have had on the continuing evolution of civilization.
7/8/2014 03:30:35 am
Being a believer corresponds with conviction and subjectivity.
7/8/2014 03:32:19 am
>>> sometimes a troll just has to be dragged into the sun
7/8/2014 03:40:47 am
>>> the world is more complex
7/8/2014 03:47:50 am
[Being a believer corresponds with conviction and subjectivity.]
7/8/2014 03:53:22 am
>>> Got it
7/8/2014 04:07:34 am
That was subjectively spoken with conviction. Now go away, kookie britches, you're old news.
7/8/2014 04:12:05 am
At least I'm not tied to hogwash and humbug
7/8/2014 04:35:57 am
Yet another subjective opinion. Here's one of my own: everything you say is hogwash and humbug.
7/8/2014 06:06:43 am
You are inexorably linked to that 'hogwash and humbug' in that your entire identity- or at least that which you have decided to display here in public- is built around rejecting it. You've bought so far into your own notions of what's right and wrong, true and false, that you become locked into this pathetic trapped-animal mode of lashing out wildly against anyone who disagrees with you or appears to hold a belief you do not.
7/8/2014 06:22:48 am
>>>to use Google to make your cries for attention seem relevant
7/6/2014 11:37:35 am
There is an interesting question here, related to Jesus combining human and divine characteristics. On the one hand, Jesus as the Messiah (human even if ascended to Heaven), may have some connection with an earlier "hidden king" myth. However, it is more probable that many of the European versions of the myth (as well as, perhaps, those of some Muslim denominations) have been influenced by Christianity, rather than vice versa.
7/6/2014 12:38:44 pm
I would say that "sleeping king" myths from Europe are probably more likely to be descended from their earlier, non-Christian belief structures (namely Wotan and his Valhal) than on any sort of oddball Christ-hood. In every version I've ever heard, the king myths reflect purely earthly issues (defense of the homeland, return of a golden age, etc.), not the purgation of the wicked (in a moral sense).
7/6/2014 01:10:36 pm
Gregor, note that I was comparing the probabilities of early Christianity being influenced by Hidden King myths (Northern European or other) and vice versa. I wasn't saying anything about the influence of Wodan on modern European Hidden King folklore. And surely you wouldn't deny that it was influenced by Christianity as well as (and more immediately than!) by pre-Christian paganism.
7/6/2014 02:18:09 pm
-shrug- It's just my personal opinion. The bent of the Eddas depend on whether you read the originals, or those "edited" by Christians to interject a "king of kings"...otherwise they tend to be rather cyclical. In any case, I was saying that to me, the broad influence of a pagan faith (that allows for multiple heroes and mythological figures) and a "war chief" social structure strikes me as a more likely background for a "slumbering king" myth (in my experience, I've only heard of European variants a la Barbarossa - if there are others of distinctly non-European origin I'd find that pretty awesome) than the supposition that they likened kings to the literal god incarnate.
7/6/2014 03:14:13 pm
Actually, I was talking about both versions of the Eddas. Not sure what you have in mind with your "cyclical" comment, but my understanding of Norse mythology is that it doesn't have anything like a temporarily absent God-King ruling over the end of time, such as those of the Hindus, Zoroastrians, Christians, etc.
7/6/2014 08:13:47 pm
How could a Northern European God-myth influence a Middle-Eastern myth like Christianity, steeped and modelled on the Old Testament?
7/6/2014 08:15:16 pm
All on the Jimmy Frazer level
7/6/2014 08:26:38 pm
Let's say the Edda (circa 13th century) contains oral tradition dating back to the Viking Age - that would date it back to between 793 AD and 1066 in European history.
7/6/2014 08:28:59 pm
I mean the other way around - Christianity inspired by the Edda was the argument
7/8/2014 12:43:18 am
>>>There is an interesting question here
7/6/2014 11:39:51 am
>>>Of course Paul expected him to return
7/6/2014 03:54:14 pm
Well, a little searching around found the myth of Endymion, from Greek mythology, who was in one story supposed to be the lover of Selene the moon goddess, and who chose to be put to sleep on a mountain rather than die and be separated from Selene. There are any number of deities who were being killed and reborn, from Odin and Baldur to Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis and a gazillion heroes in Greek mythology. The elements of the sleeping king myths are obviously very, very old. Some of them also clearly influenced Christianity; there are significant similarities between the Jesus stories and the stories of Osiris and of Dionysus, for instance. But whether you can call Revelations a "sleeping king" myth...I'm not as sure.
7/6/2014 08:07:44 pm
That's right, a king fell in love with the Moon. If you believe in the New Testament, you're also prone to take this story seriously as well..
7/6/2014 08:21:00 pm
>>>there are significant similarities between the Jesus stories and the stories of Osiris and of Dionysus<<<
7/6/2014 08:36:22 pm
>>>there are significant similarities between the Jesus stories and the stories of Osiris and of Dionysus<<<
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
7/7/2014 06:54:06 am
So, 666, if you don't believe a historical Jesus existed, and you don't believe that myths from other, neighboring cultures influenced the stories of a mythical Jesus, then where the heck DO you think Christianity came from?
7/8/2014 12:25:13 am
>>>where the heck DO you think Christianity came from?
7/8/2014 12:36:32 am
Again I repeat, the New Testament literature is modelled on Old Testament literature - not from Mithraic mysteries, not from the rites of Dionysus/Bacchus, not from the rituals of Osiris where he was chopped up into 14 pieces and his resurrection depended upon the discovery of his penis by Isis, not on the rituals of Attis that was to do with Cybele, not on Gilgamesh who failed to find the fruit of immortality.
7/8/2014 04:19:03 am
The New Testament being wholly dependent on Jewish scriptures is demonstrably false. It was written in Greek, a language and culture rejected by those apocalyptic groups like the Essenes that you imagine created Christianity. The Book of John was written by a Greek with little knowledge of Jewish culture, as evidenced by the sharp differences in how the author depicted Jesus compared to the Synoptic Gospels. Paul and eventually the Apostles (in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's letters) rejected the applicability of Jewish law in favor of a universal approach more akin to philosophical ideas like Cynicism and mystery cults like Mithraism. Revelations was modeled on the Greek/Near Eastern hybrid Sibylline Oracles which likewise predicted a fall of the evil empire of Rome.
7/8/2014 04:25:19 am
Mandalore, you can actually buy Bibles showing which New Testament passage is derived from which Old Testament passage. And similar works are available giving information relating to the Pseudopigrapha. All of the events in Jesus' "biography" find parallels in Old Testament texts.
7/8/2014 04:32:08 am
>>> like the Essenes that you imagine created Christianity
7/6/2014 08:48:06 pm
I wonder if there is any connection to this very similar Chinese/Japanese legend: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranka_%28legend%29
7/7/2014 01:30:58 am
Charles Clemons mentioned it in 2008
7/7/2014 02:51:01 am
earlier, we have the cave of the 7 sleepers in turkey
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